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.