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I want to ask you about the usage of this phrase "can't but". The matter is that some native speakers have told me that this construction can be used only with such actions which are not fraught with volition. In other words, the following sentence is not felicitous.

- Why did you sign the contract?

- In that situation I couldn't but sign the contract.

They say that as this action (i.e. signing the contract) was intentional, hence, "can't but + verb" shouldn't be used here. "Can't but + verb" is reserved for other actions which happen unintentionally, such as: I couldn't but hear what you said: you were yelling.

My question is whether you agree with this approach. Is it really not acceptable to use "couldn't but sign" in the first example? Should it be replaced with something like "I was obliged to sign?

  • In that situation I couldn't... but what you could not? I'm not aware if such use of ellipsis exists. Also, when but emphasizes something, it should take comma. It was too hot there. There was no any other solution, but to walk away from that place. – Maulik V Apr 14 '14 at 9:52
  • I couldn't refrain from doing what I did. – user1425 Apr 14 '14 at 9:56
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    You start this post talking about "can't help but", but then you switch to "can't but" without acknowledging the transition, apparently treating them as the same thing. This is somewhat confusing. – snailcar Apr 14 '14 at 14:18
  • you are right! My oversight. – user1425 Apr 14 '14 at 15:40
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"You cannot/could not but"is used to show that everything else is impossible except the thing you are saying. eg:" What could he do but help her" (that was the only thing possible). So , "In that situation I couldn't but sign the contract.", in my opinion is correct.

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" cannot but + infinitive" is an idiomatic formula used in fixed expressions, such as

  • I cannot but admire her.

You have to know what expressions are usual. You cannot use it freely. And it is formal style.

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