Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language Learners Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for speakers of other languages learning English. It's 100% free, no registration required.

“I was not eavesdropping,” Emma insisted. “I was tying my bootlace.”

The lace had come undone as she left the home of Miss Bates, a middle-aged spinster who lived with her elderly mother in reduced circumstances on the upper floor of a modest house. Emma had visited their rooms many times (though perhaps not so often as she ought). Never before, however, had the humble apartment felt so small. The Eltons had called so shortly after Emma’s own arrival that it was some time before she could with propriety effect an escape. “I paused at the base of the stairs to fix the lace. Could I help it that the Eltons emerged from the apartment and began their discussion on the landing before I had done?

Mr. Knightley’s expression suggested that she might have secured the half-boot more rapidly had she wanted to. Sixteen years her senior, he had known Emma her whole life, and was as well acquainted with her foibles as he was with her charms. His dark eyes narrowed in doubt, and for a moment she dreaded an admonition delivered in his usual forthright manner.

-- The Intrigue at Highbury, or, Emma's Match: a Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mystery by Bebris, Carrie. 2010
Source: Amazon, Google

I happened to read this excerpt in COCA and found the bold sentence very peculiar.

I think it here is a dummy used as a form object representing the that-clause. But I've never run across it being used with the verb help before.

What does the bold sentence mean? Is this usage common?

share|improve this question

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Could I help it that the Eltons emerged from the apartment and began their discussion on the landing before I had done?

This is the rhetorical-question form of the following:

I couldn't help it that the Eltons emerged from the apartment and began their discussion on the landing before I had done.

The key is then the idiomatic phrase, can't help it, which means "the situation" was out of her control ("the situation" is the "it" of "couldn't help it").

Emma is saying that she had no ability to control the circumstance and therefore had no blame in the unfolding of events; she is saying "Don't judge me harshly; there was nothing I could do in this situation to change it."

Here's how to parse the meaning using another example sentence:

  • Could I help it if (or "that") she doesn't want to listen to me?
  • Don't blame me. I can't help it if/that she doesn't want to listen to me. (Converted rhetorical question to a statement.)
  • [Don't blame me.] [I can't] [help] [it] [if/that] [she doesn't want to listen to me].
  • [Don't blame me.] [I can't] [change the reality] [of the following thing I'm going to say] [if/that] [she doesn't want to listen to me].
  • [Don't blame me.] [I can't] [change the reality] [of her not wanting to listen to me] [if/that] [she doesn't want to listen to me].
  • [Don't blame me.] [It is not my fault] [if/that] [she doesn't want to listen to me].
  • Don't blame me. It's not my fault if she doesn't want to listen to me.
  • Is it my fault if she doesn't want to listen to me? (Converted back to a rhetorical question.)
share|improve this answer
    
Nice recap! Thx for providing more examples. :) –  Kinzle B Jun 27 at 9:49
    
Also note another addition which I think answers a question for you: In other words, Emma is saying to herself (or to the reader), "Don't judge me harshly; there was nothing I could do in this situation to change it." –  CoolHandLouis Jun 27 at 9:52
    
I read that. Thx for giving the underlying meaning! You always go beyong a question and extend more points. :) –  Kinzle B Jun 27 at 9:57
    
Hey I updated my example to be even a bit better! Changing from the rhetorical to the imperative includes the connotation, "don't blame me". –  CoolHandLouis Jun 27 at 10:03
    
Part of the issue here is an incomplete context and an imperfect rendering of syntax from COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English). To see the book passage more directly, try books.google.com/… (or indirectly, This Google Search), which completely supports my interpretation/parsing. –  CoolHandLouis Jun 27 at 10:20

I think it here is a dummy used as a form object representing the that-clause.

Just so.

I can't help it is a common expression in English meaning I can't prevent it or I can't stop it. Typically it's offered up as a negative response to a request to stop doing something, refusing with an explanation of inability or unwillingness:

Would you stop singing in the shower at 5 AM? It's really loud and wakes me up.
Sorry, I can't help it.

In the quote at hand, the idiom has been transformed into a question. The speaker (Emma? I find it hard to tell, since the passage changes voice and I'm failing to parse the quotes) is asking whether or not they had the ability to stop the Eltons from arriving on the landing first.

Usually when I can't help it is made into a question, it's asked rhetorically, and I believe that's the case here. It's saying what could I possibly have done to make things turn out any differently? with the implication that the answer is nothing.

share|improve this answer

This usage is quite common, but is more often found in

From Collins sense 6:

  • to avoid or refrain from
  • (usually followed by it) to prevent or be responsible for

In this case, it's saying "am I responsible for the Eltons emerging from the apartment and beginning their discussion on the landing before I had done?"

Obviously a rhetorical question, with the understanding that the answer is no.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.