cannot do anything or can do nothing


I need to describe a situation when one is not able to help something. For instance my friend came home and found that the Internet is down. She calls me and asks something like this:

... Can you do anything to help me out?

I am willing to help but I am not at home and cannot think of a real way to help localizing the problem. Which of the following do I use to better express my uselessness for the cause?

  1. I cannot do anything to help.
  2. I can do nothing to help.

Is there any noticable difference in the meaning? Which variant is more natural?

Zverev Evgeniy

Posted 2017-02-16T18:07:43.050

Reputation: 223

2Both are fine. More common, "I can't help." You can say why if you want to. – WRX – 2017-02-16T18:10:39.287

I can't help sounds a bit like unwillingness to help. I need to express that I would like to help but cannot think of a real way to. – Zverev Evgeniy – 2017-02-16T18:14:31.533

1that is why, I'd add the reason. "I wish I could help but can't while I am at work." – WRX – 2017-02-16T18:16:37.910

1@WillowRex Ahh, sorry, missed the part about the reasoning. Noted. – Zverev Evgeniy – 2017-02-16T18:21:40.917

Sentences 1. and 2. are both correct and express the same idea. The point is that in English you cannot use double negative words in the same sentence, that is to say, or you deny the verb, 1. cannot or, you deny the indefinite pronoun 2. nothing. (This comment only refers to the original doubt) – lalynacar. – 2017-02-21T19:40:59.183



I cannot do anything to help.
I can do nothing to help.
There is nothing I can do to help.

All have the same meaning and can usually be interchanged, meaning you are not able to offer any assistance.


Posted 2017-02-16T18:07:43.050

Reputation: 63 575


I agree. Both versions sound stern and severe to me. There are many ways to soften the tone by adding words and phrases. Taking the time to add them shows your concern for the listener. For example:

... Can you do anything to help me out?

  • "Not really."
  • "I don't think there's anything I can do, really."
  • "I'm not sure what that would be."

But best yet... "I would like to help but cannot think of a real way to." :)

Stew C

Posted 2017-02-16T18:07:43.050

Reputation: 914

None of those answers except perhaps "I don't think there's anything I can do" are very helpful. "Not really" strikes me as evasive while "I'm not sure what that would be" sounds clueless. "I'm sorry but I cannot help" is a polite clear means of letting someone know you cannot offer assistance. – jacksmith – 2017-02-21T21:05:54.863

It's about communication style and the goals of the interaction. If it was a workplace conversation, then I agree with you, depending on the goals. But if the relationship with the listener and the topic is more informal (as it is here) then you may want to soften the tone and avoid the "unwillingness to help" problem. The listener doesn't know if there's anything that can be done (informal, not firm), and frankly the speaker doesn't know for sure either without further investigation, although s/he may not have the time to do so, nor the means. – Stew C – 2017-02-24T19:24:14.820