41

There is a shirt with a sentence written on it. The sentence is :

I can't people today

What does it mean? I've seen this link and I know that "people" can be a verb but in this special case, I don't get the meaning of the phrase.

  • 4
    Verbing weirds nouns. As with this question about dust on ELU, you just have to figure out which relationship between the subject (I) and the verbified noun (people) makes most sense in the given context. So you might have a "Provisional = provide with, add" relationship when you people an uninhabited land (add people to it), or a "Privative = deprive, remove" relationship if you flea the cat (get rid of the cat's fleas), for example. – FumbleFingers Jul 15 '16 at 16:58
  • 10
    Although almost any noun can become a verb and see widespread use, people is not yet one that has entered the language, and that is part of the humor. Not only is the person unable to deal with people today; he or she is barely able to get a sentence out. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 15 '16 at 18:19
  • In other words: 'I am proficient at broken English'. More specifically, this 'sentence' carries no intrinsic information that can help you sort it out. In short: that is noninformation. Being unable to 'get a simple sentence out' is not funny, but tragic -all the more so we are paying attention to it. – Brice C. Jul 20 '16 at 7:17
74

It's supposed to be funny.

It implies

I can't deal with people today.

I personally didn't find it funny because this structure

I can't [noun]

seems cliche to me.

It is supposed to invoke something like this enter image description here

It's akin to

I can't even

if you are familiar with that expression.


I felt like I should probably note that the structure (using nouns as verbs) can change meaning. It isn't fixed. But it is usually used to be funny. For example,

I can't math today.

It could mean I can't do/comprehend/tolerate/teach math, all depending on context.

Today, before I went to class, I saw this post. I was exhausted and I really didn't plan anything for class. So I was thinking, I can't math today. In other words, I can't teach math today. (I wasn't trying to be funny; that's how I felt. But it could be used by someone else to be funny, like if they really hated math.)


Here is an instance of to [noun]. The speaker is talking about the abundance of tutorials in the game Pokemon LeafGreen

You get a tutorial battle where you are told how to play Pokemon. And then there is an old man later on who tells you how to Pokemon.

In this instance, we infer that "to Pokemon" means "to play [the game] Pokemon [LeafGreen]". He's trying to be funny/cutesy. He gets a couple of smiles, but no one really laughs out loud.

  • 1
    The original meme was (probably) "I can't adult today"... which is meant to be interpreted as "I can't be an adult today". Following that syntax, this would actually mean "I can't be a person today". Your interpretation certainly makes sense, too... but I don't know that's the intent. – Catija Jul 15 '16 at 17:28
  • 9
    @Catija Both this answer and the accepted answer are possible like you say. I have to side with this one because, while adult is singular, people is plural and doesn't easily translate the same way that "I can't adult" translates to "I can't be an adult." Maybe if it was "I can't person today," then "I can't be a person today" would make more sense as a translation. – Kodos Johnson Jul 15 '16 at 21:05
  • 3
    So "I can't [singular noun] today" would translate to "I can't be a [singular noun] today." And "I can't [plural noun] today" would translate to "I can't deal with [plural noun]" today. – Kodos Johnson Jul 15 '16 at 21:07
  • 1
    It is slang used by teenage girls. If a native speaker uses it, it makes them sound kind of dumb (I'm sure your native language similarly has slang only used by teenage girls). If a non-native speaker uses it, my first assumption would be they're bad at English. It'd be best to avoid it. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jul 15 '16 at 21:54
  • 3
    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft -It is not only used by teenaged girls. It is a broad internet meme used by many types of people. – Catija Jul 16 '16 at 13:32
17

This isn't normal English. The person who wrote this is deliberately using weird grammar for fun.

This is something people do as a joke: using words as verbs even though they're not verbs. People also say things like "I forgot how to American" (meaning something like: I forgot how to act like an American) or "how do I piano" (how do I use a piano). You have to kind of guess the meaning of the 'verb'. It's deliberately not very clear.
What's meant here would be something like "I can't deal with people today".

  • 3
    Downvoted because I am a native English speaker, and constructions like "I can't people today" sound perfectly normal to me. I hear them from other native English speakers on a regular basis, and in my experience they are more often used for ordinary communication than for jokes or wordplay. – Vectornaut Jul 15 '16 at 21:35
  • 9
    @Vectornaut I think it is a bit of a joke, but also carrying a serious meaning. It's certainly not formally correct. The fact that you only see this as negative statements is the key. It's wordplay suggesting by implication that they're so flustered by the prospect of having to "people" that they also forgot how to grammar. – Random832 Jul 16 '16 at 17:44
  • 7
    @Vectornaut you need more educated people around you. That's nowhere near perfectly normal. – JDługosz Jul 17 '16 at 6:07
  • 6
    Educated people also indulge in wordplay. – Russell Borogove Jul 17 '16 at 18:51
  • 1
    @Vectornaut - I too am a native English speaker, but I have never heard anyone say anything like this. I think it may also depend on the country as to how prolific this is (I live in the UK). – Matt Wilko Jul 18 '16 at 10:38
11

The phrase is a strange and ungrammatical way to say "I don't want to have to do the things that people do every day, because I can't handle it."

This is an example of a relatively popular meme, all of which are variations on the so-called "Adulting" meme. The syntax of the phrase is deliberately bad English, which is intended to inject humor into the saying. But if you're not already very familiar with the intended meaning, the literal meaning just sounds wrong.

The original phrase, which your example is a derivative of, was "I can't adult today, please don't make me adult". The relies on the use of the noun "adult" as if it were a verb, and probably derives from the "adultingblog" Tumblr account. (Warning some NSFW language in some of the posts.) The blog author used the term "adulting" to mean "the process of being, or acting like, an adult", as if it were a job title. If we expand this concept to your example, we can see the pattern:

  • to survey -> activity that defines one as a surveyor
  • to bake -> activity that defines one as a baker
  • to adult -> activity that defines one as an adult
  • to people -> activity that defines one as a person

Note also the deliberate use of the plural "people" even though the speaker is a single person, again relying on improper grammar to inject humor.

  • 49
    A good answer but I think the phrase in question is referring to socializing: "I don't want to have to deal with people today". – JamieB Jul 15 '16 at 20:05
  • 16
    @KutuluMike I've only ever heard of "not being able to people" as "not being able to deal with people and their stuff", definitely not the same as "not being able to adult" – Brian says Reinstate Monica Jul 15 '16 at 20:30
  • 5
    @pipe If I can't people then I'm also lacking the ability to people, I'm failing to see the distinction – Brian says Reinstate Monica Jul 15 '16 at 21:29
  • 6
    Like JamieB, Brian Leishman, and ColleenV, I read "I can't people" and "unable to people" as "I can't [deal with] people" and "unable to [deal with] people," respectively. Like ColleenV, I'd probably read "I can't person" as "I can't [be a] person," although I don't recall hearing "I can't person" in conversation. – Vectornaut Jul 15 '16 at 21:42
  • 8
    Agreed, this means "I can't deal with people today;" it has a different meaning than "I can't adult today," which means "I can't deal with being an adult today." – user2258552 Jul 15 '16 at 22:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.