What is the meaning of this quotation of Sheldon Cooper:
Sheldon Cooper - "If I could I would, but I can't, so I shan't."

(Likely) source: https://youtu.be/baGAQuJO-cs

  • It's from a song in a film. "I'd like these simple facts understood. I would if I could, but I can't...so I won't." For the life of me I can't find it on the internet, but I can hear the song in my head. Male singer. Think Bing Crosby era possibly.
    – jerry
    Sep 29, 2019 at 3:30

2 Answers 2


This is what I would call a saying in English: It's not exactly a quote, but it's not exactly an idiomatic expression either. Another popular form is I would if I could, but I can't so I won't.

Note that shan't is a contraction of shall not. This is a more formal-sounding way to say it, consistent with Sheldon's character. (See J.R.'s comment)

The phrase essentially means "I would do it if I were able to", but it uses a repetitive structure for emphasis and humorous effect.

  • 2
    I think you may have missed the most important part: The script adopted a more formal-sounding yet less common grammatical structure because that's the way that Sheldon Cooper (the physicist) thinks, behaves, and speaks.
    – J.R.
    May 9, 2016 at 14:17
  • Could you please tell me more about this phrase ? You could tell me either in answer or in comment, i would be greatfull if you'd help me.
    – yubraj
    May 9, 2016 at 15:17
  • @yubrajsharma What do you want to know? Is the meaning clear? From briefly searching around on the internet, it looks like the origin of the phrase is unknown. There are also several different variations.
    – Era
    May 9, 2016 at 15:31
  • Why would you call it a saying? What is a quote and why is it not exactly one? What do you mean by idiomatic expression? Sorry to say so, but to me it seems like you are using technical-sounding terms in order to sound authoritative, but can you back up any of your assertions with evidence? Do you mean that the writers of the show put the utterance in Sheldon's mouth for emphasis and humorous effect? Emphasis of what? Why is it humorous? Is that true whenever the saying is used, or only as used here? -1 May 1, 2019 at 5:11
  • @JimReynolds quote: attributed to a particular person. Saying: a phrase that is often repeated and may or may not be a quote. Idiomatic expression (or idiom): an expression where the meaning is not literal, but is culturally understood. Idioms are often sayings, but don't have to be. E.g. calling an issue no one wants to deal with a "hot potato". Repetition is one of the most common ways to emphasize something (make it stand out). In the case of a sitcom I think the humorous intent should be obvious. These are not technical terms and I answered the question directly.
    – Era
    Aug 6, 2019 at 23:45

The meaning is, plainly speaking:

I would like to, but it's impossible, so I won't.

In Sheldon's particular use of the expression here, he uses it "sarcastically" because rather than it being impossible, he actually does not want to "let it go" and is using can't as an excuse for annoying Leonard. (Or he's using it to admit that he's obsessed with the puzzle that it's in fact impossible for him to let it go.)

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