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Why Is It That You "Can't Even" But You Never Find That You "Can Even"? 

It has nothing to do with the mesmeric power of Bandycoot Cabbagepatch's name or a particularly wow grammar of doge or anything else that might affect your ability to even. No, we need to go back to even's canonical use. For example, these sound fine:

She doesn't even go here.
She hasn't ever gone here.
She didn't go anywhere.

But these sound weird:

*She even goes here.
*She has ever gone here.
*She went anywhere.

What's up with these sentences? Even, and its friends ever and any, are a type of word known as a Negative Polarity Item (NPI). They work with a sentence that's already got a negative in it and make it even more negative, but they just don't sound right in the positive ones. You can think of them like the glass-half-empties of grammar.

So, it's fairly clear that I can't even is short for a longer phrase like I can't even handle this or I can't even think right now. And because even is an NPI, there's no equivalent I can even handle this or I can even think right now, so there's also no I can even.

And it's the same thing with just plain I can’t. It’s shortened from something like I can't go on or I can't understand why I like this so much. In theory there could be I can, but we don't seem to be using it the same way.

But then things get interesting. You see, the thing is, the incomplete phrases "I can't" and "I can't even" look an awful lot like far more common types of complete phrase, "I VERB" and "I can't VERB," as in "I know," "I can't sleep," and so on. What if we just pretended that can and even were actually normal verbs?

Well, in that case, you could do with can and even anything you could do with a normal verb. For example, you can talk about your ability to can/even, as in this delightful set of examples that I collected a while back:

"I am unable to can."
"I am unable to even."
"I have lost the ability to can."
"I have lost the ability to even."
"I am all out of can."
"I’ve lost all ability to can."
"I firmly believe in your ability to can."
"The world seemed to have lost the ability to can."
"I seem to have temporarily misplaced my ability to can."
"My ability to even continues to send me out-of-office emails."
"My ability to can has been compromised. For the rest of my life I will have to take medication to help me deal with my can deficiency."

Turning one part of speech into another is a really common thing to do, especially in English where we don't have a lot of prefixes or suffixes that tell you whether something's a noun or a verb. Thus we get a record from to record, or to blog from a blog from a web log. In fact, can and even themselves originally come from 16th century reanalyses of an Old English verb (can has the same root as know) and adverb (efne meaning "likewise, just, exactly").

But can you actually do everything with the new even and can that you can with a normal verb? Well, maybe not. There's a sizable online speech community that's completely fine with the variations on "ability to can/even" above and yet finds the examples below just a step too far:

"So emotional…I can’t even. Maybe I’ll even tomorrow."
"Successfully regained my ability to even! I’m quite good at evening!"
"I just got out of a meeting, so now I can stop evening."
"I evened for a while, but then I saw that gif and I couldn't even anymore."

What's the difference? It seems that using the uninflected to can or to even is an easier step than making it past (evened), future (I'll even), or progressive (evening).

So my best guess is that can and even are in a state of flux right now. At the moment, people are pushing them into new areas of grammar, but with full knowledge that they sound a bit weird, which I've called stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence.

And we may stop there. Or, can and even may continue along the path towards full reanalysis. There are some things that are beyond even a linguist's ability to can.

Part of a new series on internet linguistics.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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