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The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary gives the following example sentence, along with its interpretation in brackets:

He never does more work than he can help (= he does as little as possible) .

Actually, the problem lies not so much with the meaning of "help" as with the structure.

Consider a structurally identical sentence:

He never does more work than he is given.

That means, for example, that if he is given 10 pieces of work, he will not do an eleventh. He only does what he is asked to do.

Back to the OP sentence. Suppose "help" means "avoid." Then the original sentence can be rephrased as below:

He never does more work than he can avoid (doing).

Bearing in mind that it means "he does as little as possible," we can see the puzzle is that the intended interpretation is actually the reverse of the above sentence:

He never does more work than he cannot avoid (doing).

I.e., he never does more work than he has to do; he only does as much as he has to do.

  • 2
    Think of it as He never does more work than he can help doing. If he can't help doing [more of] something, that means he does do it (he has no choice in the matter). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 31 '18 at 14:55
  • "How does it come about?" questions are off-topic here, since they can get into etymology. ELU is better for that. But the verb help can be reflexive (and that meaning can survive in set phrases even where the reflexive pronoun has fallen away over time) and then it has the meaning "to act on one's own behalf or in one's own interest, or volitionally". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 31 '18 at 15:21
  • Please see the edit to my question. – Apollyon Aug 31 '18 at 16:34
  • -1. Your example with is given is hardly "structurally identical'. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 31 '18 at 17:08
  • The edit turns it from what felt like an answerable question to not really a question at all. – Tetsujin Aug 31 '18 at 17:40
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Late Edit:
I see from comments & other answers there is still potential for some confusion with the word "help" in this context.

It has no connection to "assisting"
It does not share meaning with 'Can you help me fix this?'
'Help' has two completely distinct meanings.
Original answer below...


He never does more work than he can help (= he does as little as possible) .

Read it as

He never does more work than he can avoid having to do.

Consider...

I can't help falling over in these roller skates.

Being a poor skater, you can't do any better than constantly fall; you can't help falling; you can't avoid falling.

'Help' in such circumstances is safer to read as avoid, which then carries exactly the same meaning from being a poor skater to being adept at not doing any work, unless you must.

  • Please see the edit to my question. – Apollyon Aug 31 '18 at 16:34
  • But the problem with "help" understood as "avoid" in this context is that it is not amenable to logical analysis. If a person avoids 20 pieces of work but does 19 a day, he fits into the scenario described by the sentence, "He never does more work than he can avoid (doing)." But that hardly means he does as little work as possible. – Apollyon Sep 1 '18 at 8:18
  • Yes it does. It just means "as little as possible == 19" for that particular scenario. – Tetsujin Sep 1 '18 at 8:28
  • That really depends on the nature of his work. It is not inconceivable to suppose , for some professions, the majority of requests would be turned down. 19 would be considered a lot. – Apollyon Sep 1 '18 at 8:35
  • Does "He never does more work than he can avoid, but he always does as much as he can" seem like a self-contradiction? – Apollyon Sep 1 '18 at 8:47
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to help [doing something] means: it's beyond your abilities to do something; usually used in the negative.

I can't help doing this. [is typical usage; it is beyond my abilities to not do this]

He never does more work than he can help [doing].

In other words, he never does more work than what is beyond his abilities.

  • Sorry, but I disagree. To me it reads as 'he tries to avoid doing anything'; which also agrees with the dictionary definition. – Tetsujin Aug 31 '18 at 14:50
  • I disagree as well - to me it means that he shirks his duties as much as possible. It's similar to "not if I can help it", which roughly means "I'm not going to do it". – Dr Sitecore Aug 31 '18 at 14:52
  • @Dr Sitecore What I said is not really in contradiction with what you both are saying. He avoids it because he can't help it. It it beyond his abilities, literally, to do more. I can't help pointing this out. [It is beyond my abilities to not point this out.] – Lambie Aug 31 '18 at 14:58
  • @Lambie Ok, your point is well taken :) – Dr Sitecore Aug 31 '18 at 15:01
  • I agree with Lambie here, and disagree with the two comments above. Pragmatically, OP's text pretty much entails (stronger than simply implies) that he does do at least some work. But it's only an "implication" (not necessarily true) that the subject would prefer to do no work at all if that option were available. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 31 '18 at 15:03
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He never does more work than he can help (himself by doing).

He does no more than the work required to help himself.

  • Your answer makes perfect sense if "help" means, as you say, "to act on one's own behalf or in one's own interest, or volitionally". But the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary lists the OP sentence in its illustration of "can / cannot help" and defines "help" as "avoid or prevent." – Apollyon Sep 1 '18 at 0:30
  • @Apollyon: I think you do not understand what dictionaries are. You seem to treat them as if God himself had written them, that their formulations are the only way of understanding a word and represent an exhaustive set of possibilities. Especially with a learner's dictionary, a definition is merely a way to help a learner get a handle on how a word is used. Some lexicographers might say "Used to indicate that a person tends to avoid work". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 1 '18 at 11:22
  • Are you suggesting the OP sentence is actually a misplacement in the said entry? – Apollyon Sep 1 '18 at 11:27
  • I don't know what sentence you're referring to and I have no idea what you mean by misplacement. I mean you should cease to be a slave to a single dictionary. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 1 '18 at 11:28

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