Thursday, 7 August 2008

On "can be able to"

I usually begin my posts with the phrase 'A correspondent writes...'. This time it has to be 'A Correspondent writes...' For the query comes via Her Majesty the Queen.

No, it is not the case (I imagine) that Her Majesty reads this blog. What happened was this. A Japanese professor, anxious to check on a question of English grammar in the King James version of the Bible, thought that the best way of deciding the matter was to write directly to the Queen. (I think that's wonderful, that someone should think to do such a thing.) Her Majesty's correspondence officer, observing that 'this is not a matter on which The Queen would comment', forwarded the letter to the English-Speaking Union (the Duke of Edinburgh is its patron), and they in turn passed it on to me. So I guess this is the next best thing to having a royal appointment! Maybe there will be a post of Grammar Laureate one day.

It's an interesting issue. The correspondent had noted an unusual modal auxiliary use in Exodus 10.5, where it is said that locusts will cover the face of the earth so that 'one cannot be able to see the earth'. He suggests - very plausibly, to my mind - that this has to mean, 'it is not possible that one is able to see'. And he comments that the expression is 'unnatural'.

It certainly wasn't unnatural in the 16th century. There are several examples of can/cannot co-occurring with be able to. A couple occur in Shakespeare. In The Winter's Tale (5.2.25), the Second Gentleman observes: 'Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it.' And in Antony and Cleopatra (1.4.78), Lepidus says:

Tomorrow, Caesar,
I shall be furnished to inform you rightly
Both what by sea and land I can be able
To front this present time.

It seems that can was being treated just like may, shall. and others, all of which can precede be able to - I may be able to go, They should be able to go, and so on.

As the modal system developed, the association of can with be able to fell away, for two reasons. There was an overlap of meaning between the ability sense of can and that of be able to, which made can be able to seem tautologous. And be able to came to fill the gap of expressing ability whenever a nonfinite construction required it: one says to be able to talk, not to can talk. The two expressions thus complemented each other, and this made it less likely that they would co-occur.

But the usage didn't die away completely, especially in negative expressions. I have heard can't be able to in some regional dialects. Nor did it entirely disappear from Standard English. If you do a Google search for cannot be able to there are 3000 or so examples. Now, admittedly many of these are likely to come from people for whom English is a second or foreign language, and where learning levels are unclear, but there are several cases where the text has been written by native speakers in Standard English. Here is an example, from Articles Base:

'E-mail notifications should be provided to inform users when they are required to perform a task or need to be aware of an event. This should be able to be deactivated but at the same time there must always be some alternative form of notification that cannot be able to be deactivated.'

It would be interesting to hear if the usage is known by readers of this blog.


Annie said...

Logical and spontaneous! I will start using it!
By Google search I just now came across usages without 'be':"What if you can't able to serve someone in small claims court?"
It doesn't sound correct, does it, Professor? What are the syntactic and semantic functions of 'able' here?

DC said...

OK, but be careful, as some stylists would be critical of it.

The other example sounds like an error to me. Note that they've also omitted an article or something before 'small claims court'. Feels like sloppy editing.

KateGladstone said...

In the USA (and in Canada, as I recall) "can[not] be able to" abounds in spoken standard English -- and fairly frequently appears (though schoolteachers condemn it) in written standard English.

Many of us North Americans say (and some of us write) "can be able to" (as the future tense of "can") far more often than we'd ever use "will be able to/shall be able to" (those latter ways of saying it would strike many Americans as decidedly stodgy, schoolmarmish, and -- yes -- unnatural).

The wide use of "can[not] be able" in North American English should surprise no one, as of course English-speakers had colonized North America well before anyone decided to outlaw "can be able."

Out of curiosity, I checked the original Hebrew of Exodus 10:5 to see whether anything in the Hebrew necessitated "cannot be able to" -- however, the Hebrew phrase in question merely translates as "will not be able to":
the word for 'not', followed by the future-tense form of the word for '[he] can'.

Therefore, I presume that the King James Bible translators (just like many North Americans) simply regarded "cannot be able to" as a normal way -- perhaps *the* normal -- way to form the future of "cannot".

Regarding "small claims court" rather than "a/the small claims court": in the USA, types of court simply do not get articles (with the exceptions of "the Supreme Court", "the Court of Appeals", and "the courts" when used to mean the legal system generally: "the case is going through the courts" and so on.)

Standard (and nonstandard) USA spoken and written English universally use "go to small claims court" -- "the case is in divorce court" -- "children under sixteen are tried in juvenile court" -- and so on:
just as both USA speakers and UK speakers talk/write about "going to court/going to college/going to school" and UK speakers talk and write about "going to hospital" and "going to university".
(Here in the USA, we find the UK usages "going to hospital"/"going to university" without the article every bit as bizarre and unexpected as you UK speakers apparently find our un-articled "going to small claims court".)

DC said...

Point taken about the US usage - but it doesn't explain the present example, which came from a British lawyer.

You don't mention can't able in your set of interesting examples. Is that ever used in the US? I've never come across it in the UK, not even regionally.

KateGladstone said...

I've never heard or seen "can't able" except in the sole example you quote; so I'd put it down either to sloppy typing or to the odd tendency of some people (who do not normally delete forms of the verb BE) to delete these forms in their e-mails.

David Crosbie said...

In the part of South Africa where I worked, and quite probably in the whole country 'can be able' was a pretty reliable index of a Black speaker of English.

White Afrikaner speakers of English weren't too impressed, but they had their own idiosyncratic way with another modal: 'shall'.

David Crosbie said...

I've now found a reference for Black South African 'can be able'.

Gough, D.H. 1995. `Black English in South Africa.' In De Klerk, V. (ed.) English around the World: Focus on Southern Africa. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

David Crosbie said...

I've now found a reference for Black South African 'can be able'.

Gough, D.H. 1995. `Black English in South Africa.' In De Klerk, V. (ed.) English around the World: Focus on Southern Africa. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

DC said...

Thanks for that. Useful reference.

Kate Lee said...

Thinking about (UK) regional variations of English, I can only think of one instance it is used nowadays: "so I can be able to" - when emphasising expression of intent or will. I've never heard or read it in the negative.

I was delighted to hear the query was passed on to you! It begs the question "Who owns the English language?".

My answer would be "everyone who speaks it". Failing that I'd much prefer David Crystal to be in charge than the Queen, some kind of institute, the BBC or Microsoft Word's spellcheck.

Smoke Screen said...

What an interesting post! Thanks much, for the references to the earlier uses of "can't able to". Here in India, it is regularly heard but considered, by English-educated Indians at least, non-standard and ungrammatical. And in this part of the English-speaking world, non-standard/ungrammatical English is usually attributed to the influence of the vernacular languages. But I'm forced to reconsider that stand now, at least on this particular usage. Should be interesting to find out why it's so common here.

Rick S said...

As a new US subscriber to your RSS feed, I was just reading this while catching up.

Kate Gladstone's first comment above includes the statement "The wide use of 'can[not] be able' in North American English should surprise no one...". Well, I must say it surprises me; it sounds distinctly odd to me, and I'm not really sure I've ever seen or heard it before.

The only time I can imagine using such a construction is in very special circumstances, when I wished to emphasize the difference between preserving the option to take an action versus actually intending to take it. For example, "I registered myself in August so that I can vote in November" implies that I definitely intend to vote, but "I registered myself in August so that I can be able to vote in November" implies only that I wanted to preserve the ability to decide later whether to vote.

As for "will be able to" as the future "tense" of "can", that's exactly the constuction I use, and although some of my friends do see my phrasing as occasionally highfalutin (by which they might mean "stodgy"), they haven't seen fit to call it unnatural. With respect to the previous paragraph, I might say "I registered myself in August so that I'll be able to vote in November", but that again implies intent to me. I would still use the "can be able" construction to emphasize preserving my option.

Anonymous said...


Rick suggested that, "I registered myself in August so that I can vote in November" implies
that Ihe definitely intends to vote, while, "I registered myself in August so that I can be able to vote in November" implies only that he wants to preserve the ability to decide later whether to vote.

I might understand that in the right context. :-) But (to my knowledge) we in Western Canada would usually say, "I registered myself in August so that I can vote in November if I want to."

Regards: Yuuri


markos said...

I always found it very difficult to digest someone using "can be able to or cannot be able to" as i found these two "can" and "able" in this structure mere a repetition of meaning. But i have observed that people in South India use it quite often though i never heard such an expression in North India.
Logically i find it difficult to translate in Hindi and awkward to understand.