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I know the phrase can't help sth/doing sth is normally used to say that you cannot stop yourself from doing something, as in:

I couldn't help eating more. It was too delicious.

My question is, is this structure also used in a situation where you kind of have control on? I read this structure in a quiz:

A: Why did you leave the party so early?
B: I couldn't help leaving. I had an important meeting.

I've always seen the structure used in more spontaneous situations, so I wasn't sure whether it's correct in that sentence (especially since the test is made by a non-native speaker).

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    "I couldn't help leaving" sounds a bit off to me in that example. "I had to leave" is a straightforward way to express an obligation. "I couldn't help eating more" (or "I couldn't stop myself from eating more") is more idiomatic; it conveys a lack of willpower.
    – nschneid
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 22:51

3 Answers 3

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The test-setter is wrong. We don't use couldn't help for things that you have to do for a good reason.

It is used, as you say, for things you can't stop yourself from doing (laughing at something funny, eating more of a delicious food) and also for things you do by accident (overhearing a remark that was meant to be private, for example).

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There are at least two related meanings to "can't/couldn't help".

Talking about stuff you do because you lack mental or physical means to stop yourself from doing it:

  • "I can't help falling in love with you"
  • "I couldn't help falling over the kerb when that truck went by so close."

or

  • "Little Jane couldn't help laughing at the teacher slipping on the wet floor."

Talking about it not being in your power do do something about something:

  • "I can't help that you're out of petrol. Don't blame me!"
  • "Now look what's happened, I'm up to my knees in mud." "Well do you think I can help that?"
  • "We can't help her having to do that 50-mile round trip now. She shouldn't have left her wallet in the hotel!"

In the first meaning, the subject of the main clause ("can't help") agrees with subject of the gerund-based clause, while in the second there is either a different explicit subject indicated by an object or possessive pronoun before a gerund or a separate subordinate clause, usually beginning with "that".

The example you give sounds a bit unnatural as the structure has come to indicate a reference to one's own mental power rather than an outside force.

The speaker might have said "I couldn't help that I had to go" (or even "I couldn't help having to go").

The important thing is to make clear the reason the person had to leave was imposed by an outside force and not something within the subject him or herself.

The example isn't precisely wrong, but it does sound just a little unnatural.

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I disagree somewhat with earlier posts. Yes, "could not" has two rather distinct meanings. It can refer to physical inability, and it can refer to self-control.

"I could not get here any faster. Traffic was too heavy." Or "I could not lift such a heavy box." You are simply incapable of doing the thing under discussion.

That's very different from, "I couldn't stop eating until I had eaten the whole cake." Clearly you were physically capable of putting down your fork and not eating any more. But you lacked the will power.

And yes, some things could be in a gray area. "I couldn't stop laughing at Bob's ridiculous political views." Maybe they struck you as so funny that you had a physical impulse to laugh that you tried to control but couldn't. Or maybe you wanted to laugh.

"I couldn't help leaving. I had an important meeting." Well surely you could have stayed and missed the meeting. It's not that some irresistible force dragged you out of wherever to go to this meeting. But you considered the meeting too important to miss. I suppose this is something of a third category: Not physical inability. Not lack of self-control. But circumstances making something difficult.

And yes, fluent speakers say things like that. Another way to express the same idea would be, "I decided to leave because I had a meeting that I considered more important than spending time with you." But that would sound rude. Even if the meeting really was important or urgent and whatever activity you left was not, it was just a casual party or something, you probably wouldn't want to come right out and say, this activity isn't very important. And if the other person might think that what you left was more important than this meeting, you surely don't want to say that he was wrong.

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