In a programming site, someone just wrote:

I cannot seem to get them both to find their relevant objects.

It seems I've heard something similar before, say:

I cannot seem to find it.

With my simple-minded mind, I would think that what they really mean is:

It seems I cannot find it.

... because what they really want is not to seem to find X but really find it.

My question is: is it common to say "I can't seem to do it" when one really means "It seems I can't do it", and is it "correct" (in whatever sense that makes sense)?

[edit] There is another question on how to use 'seem' in negative form; however, my interest is a bit different. I would like to know how native English speakers perceive the "I can't seem..." expression: for example, if someone is looking for something for quite some time, would they rather say (1) "I can't seem to find it" or (2) "It seems I can't find it"? Would (1) seem (even slightly) illogical or is it just a natural way to say it?

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    But the real question is, what is a 'simple-minded mind'? :O
    – Varun Nair
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 11:31
  • 3
    Possible duplicate of How to use of the word "seem" in negative form Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 11:47
  • Varun KN, by "simple-minded mind" I meant someone like me, who can more or less understand some English but does not have the intuitions of a native speaker :P (but of course, on re-reading, it sounds like infinite recursion)
    – lebatsnok
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:51

4 Answers 4


My question is: is it common to say "I can't seem to do it" when one really means "It seems I can't do it", and is it "correct" (in whatever sense that makes sense)?

Yes, it's common, and the difference is that the first expresses a certain level of frustration, as in, "I've looked everywhere and I can't seem to find it."

The second construction would express a certain level of resignation, "It seems I can't find it, so we'll have to do without it."

The two can also be used interchangeably when the level of either frustration or resignation is low.

  • I am accepting this answer as the most instructive [for the asker, at the moment]. The other answers and comments were useful as well. Several comments as well as Colin Fine's answer pointed to the concept of raising. FumbleFingers mentioned distancing of of the speaker from what is said. TRomano completely exposed the naïveté of the OP's approach to parsing. Thank you all! :)
    – lebatsnok
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 6:05

With "simple-minded mind", I understand the OP to be saying that he is parsing the sentence rather like a first-generation robot, like this:

I cannot {seem to find it}.

Does not compute.

But "seem to find" there is a nice bit of deixis, which only a HAL would pick up on.

cannot {seem to {find}} is an inline-aside which here could be paraphrased as "cannot find although I am and have been searching".

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    Thanks! But cannot {seem to {find}} is simplified to cannot{seem to find} which evaluates to not-making-sense :( The problem is to find how a native speaker transforms !CAN(seem(find(x)) to seem(!CAN(find(x)) because in my mental system seem cannot be nested in CAN. (Where ! is shorthand for NOT).
    – lebatsnok
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:02
  • maybe "I seem not-being-able-to-find-it" is a middle step?
    – lebatsnok
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:22
  • "seem" there is like a /* comment */ in code in a future-generation programming language that supports not only instructions but metadata revealing the intention and mental state of the programmer.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:36
  • seem can be a lexical expression of repetition/recurrence/iteration. She tried to run into him "by accident" on campus for a few weeks after being introduced to him at the party, but she never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:54
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    @lebatsnok Raising is quite common in English. It's a bit like you want to say "I seem to cannot find it" but that would be ungrammatical so you "raise" it and end up saying "I cannot seem to find it" instead. This is, as far as I can tell, pretty much automatic among fluent speakers. A simpler case is the preference for "I don't think she understands it" over "I think she doesn't understand it" (though both alternatives are grammatical in this case). This is, again, automatic, AFAICT. Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 0:01

Seem is a "raising to subject" verb.


It seems I cannot find it.

I'm emphasizing the situation here, implying that the circumstances or situation is causing my inability, not me.

I cannot seem to find it.

I'm emphasizing myself here, implying that it's my fault I can't find it, not the circumstances or situation.

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