Two Minuses Make a Plus in Russian

But that’s too straight-forward and boring. Instead, they say: I can’t help but share! (literally, I cannot not share). In most cases, a Russian double negative is stronger than a single Russian positive.

 It has the sense of “I can’t help but …” – as if the desire and need were so strong that the speaker just has to succumb. When you hear that, you know that whatever is coming is going to be fabulous. I can’t help but share! I got promoted! (I just can’t wait to tell you! I got a promotion!) I just couldn’t resist sharing my good fortune.

One of my favorites things about Russian are double negatives. This is a nation that does not want to just come out with it and say, “I have to tell you something!” They could if they wanted to. I want to tell you something! (I want to tell you something!) I need to tell you something! (I have something to tell you!)

So You Can’t Help Means: There’s no way you won’t succeed! When you’re hoping to make an impression, it’s good to hear A man can’t help but notice you (You’re sure to be noticed by someone!) Or when you haven’t found the right dance partner, you’ll be comforted by : Your partner can not find you (The right partner is bound to come along). And any collector would be happy to hear: Of course I noticed your amazing collection.

But sometimes this non-construction seems to be used when the speaker should be happy – and is, sort of – but there is a “but” or a “however.” This is the rather dense knot of emotions behind is good news, but … (literally, it can’t not delight you, but …) This might be used by cautious bosses – or bosses who don’t want their employees to start asking for raises. Imagine a board room, the chairman at the podium: These developments are encouraging, but much remains to be done. This relative improvement is certainly welcome, but the overall financial situation of the company is still dire.

I found many examples of this construction in official correspondence and negotiations, where I guess assertions are cautious and big explosions of joy and optimism are Not Done. Tajikistan can’t help but be concerned by the situation in neighboring Afghanistan. The conflict cannot but be accompanied by an increase in arms in those countries. All of this is bound to be upsetting.

Couldn’t not know (he couldn’t not know) can be a way of asserting that a certain party had to know what he or she was doing. Your company must know that due to a sharp shortage of raw materials, prices will rise! (Your company had to be aware that due to the sharp decrease in raw materials the prices would rise). Here it is in a legal document: Clause 3 exempts the seller from liability in the event of non-conformity of the goods on the basis of paragraph 2 in the sense that the buyer “knew or could not have known” about such a lack of conformity at the time of the conclusion of the contract (Article Three relieves the seller of responsibility for the sub-standard product under Article Two since the buyer “knew or could not have been unaware” that the product did not meet the standard at the time the contract was signed).

Got that? I might put it a bit differently: You knew what you were buying when you bought it, man. Tough luck.

In other cases, these expressions make you stop and think: Say again? What does that mean? And it’s not just foreigners who can get confused. Lots of native Russian speakers write to grammar sites and the all-purpose otvet.mail.ru with questions about these constructions. Someone asked: ‘I can’t disagree’. How to understand this? (“I can’t not agree.” What does that mean?) One person said it simply means: I completely agree. Someone else agreed with that answer, but added: It’s a pretentious phrase signifying agreement.

I couldn’t agree with him (I couldn’t agree with him more). One does tend to gush a bit in translation: Speaking of reading, I can’t help but mention my favorite writer (Since we’re talking about reading, I simply must mention my favorite writer.)

I personally was thrown off by this phrase: On the one hand, one cannot but confess, on the other hand, one cannot but confess. After staring into the middle distance for much longer than I’d care to admit, I realized it means: On the one hand, you have to admit it, but on the other hand, you can’t deny it. That is: the speaker is holding the same thing in both hands.

Still puzzled, I poked around and discovered that it was a phrase used by the satirist Saltikov-Shchedrin to describe a lack of socio-political principles, doublespeak. Another Russian way of putting it is wash a fur coat without getting the fur wet – having it both ways. It’s a Bad Thing when “having it both ways” means not supporting one side in a conflict. For example, Kornei Chukovsky used it to criticize press reports about an incident when an Ottoman soldier shot and killed the Russian consul general in Macedonia in 1903. Newspapers around the world were unwilling to condemn the act, he said: “… the formula:“ with on the one hand, one cannot but confess, and on the other, one cannot but confess “- here, as elsewhere in such cases

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