In Defense of I Can't Even

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
March 12 2014 11:01 AM

In Defense of I Can't Even

465336979-kacey-musgraves-poses-in-the-press-room-during-the-56th
Country singer Kacey Musgraves couldn't even.

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

When Kacey Musgraves won a Grammy for Best Country Album in January, she couldn't even. When Jezebel writer Laura Beck saw a video of a hamster nibbling on an ear of baby corn, neither could she. And after Entertainment Weekly named John Green's young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars as one of its 10 best fiction books of the year, the author wrote on his Tumblr: "I will endeavor to regain my ability to even."

I can't even is now a sentence. It's an efficient, Internet-inflected way of saying "I can't even express how I'm feeling right now." And as Musgraves' acceptance speech demonstrates, the phrase has spread to spoken English as well.

Advertisement

Predictably, some people can't even with I can't even. They're upset that what they view as lazy Internet slang is finding its way into the mainstream. "If you find yourself in a troubling position where you can’t even, I implore you to slow down and speak with enough declaration so that your thoughts are complete and not just recurring fragments," Devin Largent wrote on Thought Catalog. And Mother Jones included I can't even on its list of the worst words and phrases of 2013.

But critics who dismiss this construction and its cousins—I actually just can't, I can't with you, I have lost the ability to even—as sloppy shortcuts for people who can't be bothered to complete their sentences are misguided. I can't even is just the latest iteration of an ancient figure of speech. It's established enough to have a fancy Greek name—aposiopesis.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines aposiopesis, which derives from siope or "silence," as: "A speaker's abrupt halt midway in a sentence, due to being too excited or distraught to give further articulation to his or her thought." It's the ultimate embracing of your high school English teacher's advice to show, not tell. Instead of saying she or he is at a loss for words, the speaker actually demonstrates it.

This rhetorical device dates back to at least the first century B.C., when Virgil used it to depict Neptune's utter exasperation with some troublemaking wind gods in the Aeneid: "How dare ye, ye winds, to mingle the heavens and the earth and raise such a tumult without my leave? You I will—but first I must quiet the waves."

Aposiopesis also crops up in King Lear, when the title character rages at his ungrateful daughters:

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

Centuries later, the Three Stooges pioneered a still classic example with "Why I oughta …," one of Moe's many exclamations (and not his only aposiopetic one—"Why you …").

People have been using I can't even as a form of aposiopesis since at least 2010, when Urban Dictionary described it as "a full sentence, well only on tumblr." Though the phrase has gained currency offline, Tumblr and Twitter are indeed teeming with struggling souls who #canteven. And users of that hashtag appear to be predominantly female—not surprising, given that women tend to be at the forefront of most linguistic trends.

Incidentally, this use of "even" fits a larger pattern that Mark Liberman of Language Log has noticed over the past two decades. He wrote that when used as an adverb, "even" no longer does exactly what the Oxford English Dictionary says it does, which is "intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition" (as in "Even Bill likes Mary"). Instead, people are using it purely for emphasis (as in "What does that even mean?").

So are Americans suffering from a profound lack of ability to process their emotions? Maybe. Are they suffering from a profound lack of communication skills? Definitely not. They're simply doing more with less.

Rebecca Cohen is the intern for the Slate Political Gabfest.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 10:10 AM Where Do I Start With Sleater-Kinney?
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.