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Reader suggestions and queries
Nov 25, 2011

 

In September, I decried the behaviour of an unknown person who removes pages from the WREN, then replaces the plundered copy for someone else to take. I called that person a vandal.
Shortly afterward, I heard from Horst Reda who suggested my “vandal” might be guilty of nothing more serious than thoughtlessness. I hadn’t considered thoughtlessness, but Reda could be correct. If so, let’s hope the problem is solved.
Reda also pointed out that, today, people are reluctant to waste paper even give-aways such as the WREN. He’s absolutely right, and a reader might innocently remove pages of interest and, in an effort, not to discard the perfectly good remainder, replace the WREN for someone else. Maybe a recycling bin nearby would help.* 
R. Waderphul called to query phrases like, “Couldn’t help but wonder.”
The inclusion of help in such constructions is frowned upon by most usage experts. Fowler suggests help used this way is “indefensible.” At the same time, this same source acknowledges the construction as, “common ... and likely to become more so.”
Citing the example, “She could not help but notice that all the passengers were pensioners” 
(S. Mackay, 1984), Fowler called the construction a fusion of “she could not but notice,” and “she could not help noticing,” both of which are good English usage.
Success With Words also deals with this topic, saying, “Cannot help but” is now so widespread it has become standard idiom.” Still, Success doesn’t agree with this usage, calling it“illogical.”
Practical English Usage points out that can’t help but is now common usage in American English. American Heritage (1970) considers can’t help but “well established but not preferred in formal writing and speech.”
So what’s the proper usage? All sources recommend “cannot but wonder” or “cannot help wondering.” That is, don’t use help and but together.
The word help can be traced back to King Alfred’s day (ninth century). In Old English, it was helpen from the Old Teutonic helfen (to help).
Hope this helps.
Lee-Ann and Jason Penner write, “You often refer to slang dictionaries. Aren’t slang words found in regular dictionaries?” Some certainly are, but many, especially those associated with the underworld or the drug culture, cannot be found in Webster, Nelson or Collins Gage. Much of slang usage is also local, although new communication systems may change that.
The bigger reason, of course, is that most slang is here today and gone tomorrow. Think back to your teen years. Would it be cool today to use the slang of your youth?
The Oxford Companion to the English Language views slang as an “ever-changing set of colloquial words and phrases generally considered distinct from and socially lower than the standard.”
We’re unlikely to ever see much slang in the OED. Since Oxford never removes a word once it’s listed there, the editors are very careful to list only those words that seem here to stay.
The word slang is of uncertain origin and has been used in English since the 18th century.
* Editor’s note: copies of the WREN not picked up from the over 600 news racks in Winnipeg and rural locations are recycled. We urge everyone to recycle.