Double negative expressions seem to cause confusion for Japanese learners. Especially if these learners come from language backgrounds that include languages where these kind of expressions still yield negative meaning, it’s not surprising that phrases like ～ないではいられない would cause problems.
It’s also not helpful that some textbooks call certain adverbs “negative” when it’s just a matter of semantics. In this lesson, you will learn about ～ないではいられない by knowing not only what it means, but also what it is similar to and how it is different.
At a basic understanding, ～ないではいられない means "cannot help but...". This translation, however, makes it seem a whole lot like ～てしまう.It also looks vaguely similar to ～なければならない and happens to also mean something similar. Consider the following errors.
Intended: Since I have a final exam, I have to study tonight.
Intended: When(ever) I see that baby’s smiling face, I cannot help but laugh.
If you couldn't figure out why the first wording was wrong, we'll reexamine them later as to why they’re wrong after we go through some facts about ～ないではいられない.
Conjugation and Variants
This pattern can also be seen as ～ずにはいられない, which is more literary. ～ず is an old negative ending. Like other negative endings, it attaches to the 未然形. As it is old, it attaches to the old 未然形 of する, せ-. Thus, you get せずにはいられない, and not しずにはいられない.
Now, what does ～ずにはいられない really mean? Consider the following.
～ずにはいられない: This expression shows the speaker's feeling of ending up doing something without being able to restrain one’s willpower. So, it cannot be used with things that are deemed to be spontaneous. The situation must be one where you should have willful control over, but you succumb to something. This, though, doesn't have to always be used in a negative fashion, because it’s often the case that the situation is good.
Bad things happened at the company, and so I couldn't help but drink.
I can't help but eat even during a diet.
If I’m recommended to by my girlfriend, I can't help but buy it.
This phrase, as the last example shows, is often used with conditionals. Remember that when talking about a third person, speech modals like ～だろう and ～ようだ become necessary. This pattern is also frequently used after clauses that establish a reason as for why “one cannot help but…”. Although earlier it was noted that this does not necessarily have to be used in a negative light, it still can be.
Even such a nice person like her wouldn't probably be able to help but be angry if she heard that story.
I couldn't help but hold doubts in regards to that news.
This expression is frequently used with verbs of action, emotion, and thought. As this pattern indicates a slipping of willful control to letting go in doing such action, it is frequently used with adverbs such as どうしても, なぜか, つい, etc.
I thought that it would be best to just stay quiet, but I couldn't help but say something.
This pattern is similar to ～てしまう in that both show a sense of accidentally doing something, but if something is felt to spontaneously/physiologically occur, ～てしまう remains grammatical while ～ないではいられない does not.
I was happy and ended up/accidentally bought it.
Mixing this phrase up with ～なければならない is not acceptable. The literal translation of such a mistake doesn't even make much sense in English, that is unless you’re purposely being humorous, which in that case humor often breaks grammatical rules regardless of language.
I can't help but laugh.
I couldn't help but laugh because it was funny.
Sentence Note: Although the first sentence in this lesson with 笑う was marked wrong, with context that implies the willful effort of trying to withhold laughter, this pattern can be used. Remember that with this pattern you can’t restrain oneself from doing something, so there has to be some sense that you gave up trying.
I couldn't help but see her.
I couldn't help but cry.
I can't help but drink sake.
When the service is bad, I can’t help but complain a bit.
When I see a simple question, I can’t help but answer it.
I couldn't help but do what I could.
When I started reading this book, I couldn't help but read it until the end.
When I see someone in distress, I can’t help but call to them.
When I see someone in distress, I can’t help but help them.
I can’t be so happy just because I got elected.
Grammar Note: When you do not make this phrase a double negative, you change the translation as seen in the example above to “can’t be..”.
Curriculum Note: We will return to similar expressions dealing with restraint of various sorts later in IMABI.
～ざるを得ない VS ～ないではいられない
～ざるを得ない is very similar, but the speaker has more control in the fact that they feel an obligation to do something, but obligation itself is not all there has to be for someone to actually do something. Thus, the speaker still has some control, howbeit very little.
I couldn't help but pay attention to the drunks.
I had no choice but to pay attention to the drunks.