Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Couldn't Help But To" - The Phrase That Should Be Shot

We authors have so many important things to worry about while we're writing a book: structure, believable dialogue, crafting, grammar, spelling, punctuation. Then there's POV and showing vs. telling, which are two heavily debated areas in themselves authors need to consider. Whose POV should I use to tell this story? When do I change POV? How can I show and not tell? With so much to consider, sometimes it's easy to fall into bad habits elsewhere if you're not careful. But when bad habits affect the words you write, that's when you need to stop, take a breath, and address the problem.

I'm reading a book and am about to scream at it. Why? Because the author has a fascination with three words/phrases that grate my nerves as a writer and have begun to make me question the author's joy in writing the book:

1. Fill/Fill the air
2. Around/Around them (or around her/him)
3. Couldn't help but/Couldn't help but to

Everything in this book I'm reading is "filling the air." The sound of music filled the air. The smell of chicken roasting filled the air. His moans filled the air. And usually, these things are filling the air "around" someone, whether it's around him, around her, or around them.

Here's the thing: when you smell something, it's in the air. When you hear something, it's in the air. To say that it's in the air is redundant. Instead of saying "music filled the air," you could just as easily say, "She enjoyed the music," "Music thumped from inside the club," or "The hard-hitting beats made her want to dance," all of which would be more descriptive than "Music filled the air."

How does music filling the air look? Sound? Feel? "Music filled the air" is a classic case of telling and not showing. By working a little harder, the author could have made that (and all the other "fill the air" references) so much more interesting and effective in this book. "Filled the air" is what I call a lazy phrase. It's the quick way out for a writer who doesn't want to work harder. That's just my opinion, but every time I feel my fingers wanting to type that phrase in one of my books, I stop and pull back, backtrack, and rework the sentence, because I know that "filled the air" is simple telling, and I want to show.

Same with "around them." Back to the earlier examples, If the smell of roasting chicken is filling the air (ugh), then it's doing so "around them." There's no need to state the obvious, which the author of this book I'm reading does every other page or so. In fact, I'm tempted to go back through and count how many times the author uses this phrase. Instead of saying, "The smell of roasting chicken filled the air around her," just say, "The smell of roasting chicken made her mouth water." Because we know the smell was filling the air, and it was doing so around her. You could even jazz it up: "As she searched for her keys, she smelled a chicken roasting from one of the other apartments. Mmm. Her mouth watered. She loved roasted chicken, which reminded her of cold, autumn Sundays watching football with her father. Her family always roasted a chicken on Sundays." See how much more interesting that is? It shows us something about the character and her surroundings that "filled the air around her" doesn't express.

Oh, but it's "couldn't help but to" that really grates my nerves. Nothing like a little "couldn't help but to" to slow me down while I'm reading. This is a wordy phrase that says nothing at all. And in writing, every word should mean something. Filler words should be edited out during the editing and proofing process, and "couldn't help but to" is the mother of all filler phrases. A derivative of "couldn't help but to" is "couldn't help but," which is just as bad. Here are some examples:

Wordy, clunky way:

  1. "He couldn't help but to watch her dance."
  2. "She couldn't help but scream when he jumped out from behind the door."
  3. "I couldn't help but to imagine what life would be like without cell phones."

Cleaner, crisper, snappier way:

  1. "He watched her dance." (because if he is watching her, he couldn't help himself from doing so. To say so would be redundant.)
  2. "She screamed when he jumped out from behind the door." (again, if she screamed, she couldn't help herself from doing so, so why state the obvious with "couldn't help but to"?)
  3. "I couldn't help imagining what life would be like without cell phones." (notice that I removed the "but to" and left the "couldn't help." I did this to show that sometimes you want to convey that it was beyond a character's conscious efforts to refrain from something. You would use this shortened phrase for effect in such cases, but to use the full phrase "couldn't help but to" would just be clunky)
Alternative, more interesting ways to show the action:
  1. "Watching her dance made his heart beat faster, his lip twitch, and his palms sweat." (now we get a sense that "he" might be a serial killer or someone bad. We're showing now, not just telling.)
  2. "Joseph jumped out from behind the door. 'Boo!" Liz screamed then cursed. She hated when Joseph did shit like that to her. Jumping out from behind doors to make her scream? Really? Did he think behaving like a ten-year-old would impress her?" (Oooo, Joseph is trying to catch Liz's eye, but little does he know he's turning Liz off).
  3. "Life without cell phones? I couldn't even imagine that." (Just a simple change, but I get a clearer feeling of the character's voice when I see it written this way vs. the way this example was written in the previous two sets. Do you?)

When it comes to writing, it's all about effectively conveying the scene. In the book I'm reading, the three word phrases I listed in the beginning have become so prolific that I have developed a sense that the author simply wanted to hurry up and finish the damn book already, as if she was tired of writing and just wanted to get it over with. In other words, I feel like she wasn't having any fun, and that she didn't care to try harder to give me something worth reading. The story feels rushed.

By the way, the book I'm seeing this problem in is NOT one of the books I've highlighted off to the left on my page. I will keep the book's identity a secret, as my intent is not to call out the author, but to call out this problematic method of writing so that other writers can learn and not make the same mistakes.

Happy Writing! And, as always, happy reading!



  1. I couldn't help but to agree. ☺ Seriously, that is one of my pet peeves, too. The phrases you mentioned should have been edited from the work long before publishing!

    1. *high-fives Caroline* Yes, I was surprised, given the "origins" of the book. The editing was very sloppy in this one. Lots of errors in addition to these "lazy phrases."

  2. I don't think (sometimes) we notice as authors what habits we've picked up. Critique partners and beta readers are completely necessary.

    1. I totally agree. Beta readers and critique partners are critical. Unfortunately, a lot of beta readers I've worked with are extremely gun-shy about telling authors about holes they find, as well as errors. Their experiences with authors have been somewhat traumatic in that authors usually "go off" on them for criticizing them and pointing out their story's shortcomings. I know that's one reason why I don't beta, critique, or edit anymore. Being attacked for providing honest feedback, both good and bad, became too much of a problem, so I stopped providing it.

      It's taken some time for me to train my beta readers that that's exactly what I want from them: brutally honest feedback to the point of pain, if necessary. I would much rather THEY tell me something's amiss than put a story out there that's full of errors, and then hear about it in bad reviews from my readers. An author can't fix it if they don't know it's broken. I want to know if it's broken so I can repair it before I publish it.

  3. 'Couldn't help but' is one of my worst habits while writing. When I go back through something I've written I notice that I tend to use it a lot and every time I find it I cringe internally. Actually, any time I find something clunky like that I cringe just a little and then go through and re-work a whole sentence/paragraph just to avoid it.

    My other problem is that I cannot seem to find a beta who is brutally honest with me about my work. I need someone who will give me the cold hard truth when I am writing. Whether it's an improper use of a word (which rarely happens, thankfully) or a spelling/grammatical error or moreover the clunk that a lot of 'newbie' authors tend to use. I do admit that, at times, writing like that is just something that we fall into habit doing. That is why the editing process is so important.

  4. I came here because I was wondering how to use the phrase "couldn't help but to" in a sentence. It just sounded clunky and weird. Now that I read this, I know why. I'll find an alternative. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for this - as an editor, when I read the phrase "I can't help but" I want to scratch my eyeballs out. You hit the issue smack dab on the head!

    1. I want to scratch my eyeballs out when I hear the phrase "smack dab on the head"

  6. Perhaps all writers should use only the same standardized forms of expression and never strive for their unique inner voice. Wouldn't that be fun.

  7. I guess, the "couldn't help but.." may actually describe certain reluctance in the act...certain helplessness. For instance, "She screamed.." is a voluntary act, where as, "she couldn't help but scream..." is an involuntary response, meaning, she screamed, even though she wouldn't approve of it in the act that may no go well with our so-called standardized etiquette....yada,yada yada. The subtle variation in the meaning and interpretation is what makes wordplay so much fun. "I couldn't help but respond to this post" :P

    To each his own! Amen!

    ~ Non-native English speaker

  8. "Couldn't help but" isn't filler; it conveys that an individual lacked agency.

  9. I couldn't help but use it.

  10. Hi! I'm 13 and writing is my hobby. I mainly write fan fictions so that I can use the story setting concepts that I like without 'copying'.
    I have a problem: Every time I write the beginning of a fan fiction it is always more interesting than the original story, but for some reason right after that, I get HUGE writer's block and can't come up with anything more interesting.

    Could you please help me work with this?

    Here's a script of something I wrote a long time ago based off Erin Hunter's Warrior Cats series:

    (this is a story based on the concept of cats living together in a clan with organized ranks)

    That's it!! I hope it was okay... :)

  11. thank you ,I am a college student in China,the article like this is really benefit for me.originally,I just didn't understand how to use the phrase that“one couldn't help but to”in the writing.but now I know very well this praise is not good to put in a formal writing.thank you