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I am an English learner. I am stuck with the usage of "could not help but xxx" What would be a proper time tense used after the "but"? Should we always use the Original Form or use the respective forms (e.g. did when referring events happened in the past) So which is correct?

I could not help but laugh at her yesterday.

I could not help but laughed at her yesterday.

Thanks in advance!

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  • Modals do not take tensed verbs. They take infinitives. So your question confuses me.
    – tchrist
    Dec 27, 2016 at 1:08
  • Thanks for your answer, I mean "could not help but xxx" this xxx does not directly follow after could, so I am not sure what tense should be used or always infinitives? thanx. sorry for the confusion I just started learning English three months ago.
    – Psychometrics
    Dec 27, 2016 at 1:10
  • "I could not help but laugh at her yesterday." is correct.
    – TrevorD
    Dec 27, 2016 at 1:13
  • Thanks maybe my question is just too easy for this website and also thanks for your comments.
    – Psychometrics
    Dec 27, 2016 at 1:14
  • Oh I see then. If you don't mind then I'll migrate this to ELL. Only the auxiliary ever shows tense, not any verbs following it.
    – tchrist
    Dec 27, 2016 at 1:15

1 Answer 1

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The phrase you have provided is what's known as a negative polarity item (NPI) - a phrase that only appears in negative contexts - and uses the form:

  1. "I could not help but to [infinitive]..."

  2. "I could not help but [infinitive]..."

2 is just a shortened version of 1, and tends to be more commonly used.

...so to use your example:

I could not help but laugh at her yesterday.

That being said, we tend to write "I could not help but laugh" - when speaking, the contracted form "I couldn't help but laugh" is more natural usage of the expression.

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  • I appreciate it! It is very helpful! Dec 30, 2016 at 16:42

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