Japanese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

時代の流れを感じずにはいられない。 I can't help but feel time passing by.

彼のことを同情せずにはいられない。 I can't help but to feel sorry for him.

私は、彼の才能を賞賛せずにはいられない。 I can't help but admire his talent.

Would someone please explain in detail how "~ずにはいられない。" means "can't help but"?

Is the いられない a form of いる? If so, which one?

Or is it related to this: 「~し(せ)ざるをえない」?

share|improve this question
up vote 5 down vote accepted

~ざるを得{え}ない literally means "cannot not". ~ずにはいられない literally means "cannot be without (do)ing" as has been noted.

Both can be translated as "cannot help but..." in many cases. Both 時代の流れを感じずにはいられない and 時代の流れを感じざるを得ない could work as "I cannot help but feel the flow of time".

However, I found that 断念{だんねん}せざるを得ない was used frequently, but 断念{だんねん}せずにはいられない was barely used. Asking someone about why this was, apparently ~ずにはいられない has connotations of doing something compulsively/cravingly, and as a result that sentence sounds unnatural:

× 希望を断念せずにはいられない "I cannot hold back the urge to abandon my hopes"

△ 希望を断念せざるを得ない "I cannot help but abandon my hopes"

According to Daijisen, ~ずにはいられない expresses the feeling of being unable to hold back emotions or hold back from performing actions even if one tries. Here are some examples from Space ALC which seem to show this:

盗{ぬす}みを働{はたら}かずにはいられない "Steal compulsively"

どうしても~を食べずにはいられない "Have a compulsive urge for"

賭{か}け事{ごと}をせずにはいられないこと "Compulsive gambling"

浮気{うわき}をせずにはいられない "Can't help cheating" (compulsively cheat)

share|improve this answer

'cannot be'

'cannot be without doing ...'

share|improve this answer
Thank you. is it from 居る or should i not think of it in kanji terms? – yadokari Dec 7 '11 at 23:44
@yadokari: Correct, although it is uk. – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Dec 8 '11 at 0:00

sawa has the answer for "ずにはいられない".

Compared with "~せざるをえない", they are both formed by two negative phrases to get a strong positive meaning, and the latter means "have to".

And there is no しざるをえない , it's only せざるをえない. "せ" is there to stand for a "未然形" for a verb.

share|improve this answer

Cypher's answer says more or less everything, but I'd like to add something that comes, part from what I heard from my sensei, part from my personal experience and, well, part is just an hunch (so I'd be grateful for some input from other answerers).

I'll try to be brief. 2 points.

  1. ~ずにはいられない is more or less ~ないでいられない (without は), and ~ないでいられない is a double negative, meaning it's not that different from ~ている (obviously it can't be replaced, due to the different nuance). So, what I'm saying is that there is a nuance about time passing. Let me make an example: Can't help cheating = Can't let the time pass without cheating (on her).

  2. ざるを得ない doesn't have the aforementioned nuance and is for things you literally can't avoid. 聞かずにはいられない is way more frequently found than 聞かざるをえない because you actually can avoid asking! Just to be clear this is the part that comes from my sensei, meaning I've been corrected, and then I tried to make some sense of it (sensei said it was "just more natural"... so if some native speaker here can throw some light on this issue, it would be wonderful ^_^)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.