Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Do you have any habits or quirks that you know you should stop, but you just can’t help it?

Do you hear people talk about how they help others in English?

Is this confusing because you hear the word “help” used in two completely different ways?

Today we’re talking about another contronym in the word “help”, which has two opposite meanings that may initially be confusing.

We’re going to look at these two opposite meanings, how to use each one, and how this all works in conversation.

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Understanding The Word Help In Context

We are in part three of our series on contronyms, and so the focus today is on the word “help.”

When you look at the word “help”, it means to assist but it can also mean the opposite, which is to prevent in this instance.

In this instance, you are likely saying something like you “just can’t help it.”

You are essentially saying that you can’t prevent or stop yourself from doing it.

When we look back at the other episodes in our series, you can start to see how contronyms work.

In 1440 we look at the word “off”, and in episode 1446 we looked at the word “fine.”

These are the words, just like help, that have two opposite meanings.

Though this may be confusing at first, it can also be fun too.

Looking At The Meanings

As with any of the other contronyms, “help” is one that can be quite confusing at times.

Though you may know it in the traditional sense that you might hear used in English, there can be two meanings which happen to conflict.

1. Help: This means to Assist. This is the meaning that you’re familiar with. This is all about how you can extend an offer of help to somebody, or assist them. “Can I help you?” “How can I help you?” “I want to help people.”

2. Help: Here this means to prevent, which is unusual if you’re not used to it. This is where the opposite meaning comes in, and why it is in fact a contronym. “He couldn’t help laughing when he saw her trip.” “I shouldn’t have argued with her, but I couldn’t help myself.”

So you can see how these two meanings contrast, and yet the word help is so common in conversation.

You want to know how each meaning works, and how to use it properly in conversation.

Though it may feel a bit confusing at first, you will learn to understand how this works and which one fits in the right context.

Looking At Some Specific Meanings

So you see that help has two polar opposite meanings in conversation.

Now you want to see how this works in several phrases that have specific meanings in them.

• -Can’t help thinking: This means you have a have good reason for thinking something. There is some reason that leads you to believe that this is the case—like all evidence points to this conclusion. “When my friend didn’t call me back for several hours, I couldn’t help thinking she might be in trouble.”

  • Can’t help it if: This is essentially to say that someone cannot be blamed for a situation. This is beyond your control, and therefore nobody should be upset or to blame. “I can’t help it if I’m allergic to peanuts.” “She couldn’t help it when she started crying – the movie was just so sad!”
  • It can’t be helped: This is to say that there is no way to prevent something. There was no way to ensure that this didn’t happen, and so this is where you’re at. Like if someone is late, you might say “It can’t be helped, we’ll just have to have the meeting without him.”
  • Not if someone can help it: The speaker will do anything they can to prevent something. You will do everything in your control to ensure something does or doesn’t happen. “They never eat sugar if they can help it. Not if I can help it!”

You can see how this all works, and you can start to use each meaning in conversation.

This helps you to find the perfect phrase to use in each conversation.

Roleplay To Help

In this roleplay, Lindsay and Aubrey are chatting about vacations that they might take together this year.

Aubrey: “Help me decide – I’m debating between a week at the beach or a week camping in the mountains.”

Lindsay: “I never go to the beach if I can help it. Go for the mountains!”

Aubrey: “Why don’t you like the beach?”

Lindsay: “I don’t like being in the sun all day – I always get sunburned! I can’t help it if I have fair skin!”

Aubrey: “I burn easily, too. We have to sunscreen up and wear hats! It’s so fun playing in the water though and building sand castles. I can’t help thinking my kids would prefer the beach.”

Lindsay: “Good idea to pick the vacation your whole family will enjoy.”

Aubrey: “With 4 kids, it can’t be helped!” Lindsay: “Well, have fun at the beach. I’ll be in the mountains!”

Aubrey: “You should come with us!”

Lindsay: “Not if I can help it!”


Because help is a contronym and means both to assist and to prevent, it could definitely cause confusion!

With everything you learned in today’s episode, you’ll be able to use it correctly and take advantage of all these expressions in English with the word help.

Though it may feel confusing at first, you will quickly come to understand which one works best in each situation.

Using these will make you sound native and natural, and help you to build connections in English.

Don’t get locked into one meaning for a word, this is a perfect example of that.

Try this out and you will see how naturally it comes to you in conversation.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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