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

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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
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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iStock

While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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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Big Questions
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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