Cannot vs. Can’t vs. Can Not

The negative version of the verb form “can”  is the single word “cannot.”
It means being unable to or not being permitted  to do something.
The funny thing about the word “cannot” is you can put the  accent on either syllable.

I simply cannot tolerate people  who drag meetings on and on and on.
I cannot tell the difference between  those identical twins.

The contraction of the single word cannot is  can’t. This is a more informal usage, particularly popular in the South in the  US.

The song “I Can’t Say No,” from the musical  Oklahoma!

There are a few special times when you can split the word  cannot into two separate words. Those times are when the “not” negates or refers  to the verb following it, rather than the word “can” that precedes it. It is an  emphatic form of a compound verb.

You can eat it, or you can  not eat it – that’s up to you.
I can work here, or I can not work here, depending on whether I have a better offer.

These examples do not express  the idea of being able or being permitted to do something; rather, they express a choice between two options: doing it and not doing it.

“I cannot work here” means “I am unable to work here” or “I’m not allowed to work here.”
“I can not work here” means “I am able to not work here; I’m able to work somewhere else.”
“I can’t work here” means there are so many interruptions that I cannot get anything done, so I’m going to find a nice, quiet conference room somewhere so I can be more productive.

Quote of the Day:

“Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.”
– Albert Einstein


3 Responses to “Cannot vs. Can’t vs. Can Not”

  1. Patrick Says:

    I’m sorry, but your article is incorrect. All three versions (can not, cannot and can’t) are correct according to all the best reference books and dictionaries. Please don’t cause people extra work by giving them an extra zombie rule to learn.

    Some people prefer one form or the other, fair enough. In British English ‘cannot’ is more common. In American English ‘can not’ is more common. (I did a corpus analysis to confirm this point.) Both are correct in both countries. The modern UK version is not the original; the original is ‘ne cunnan’, a spelling (and grammatical structure) not used for hundreds of years. I understand that some people claim that the negative form of the verb ‘can’ is the single word ‘cannot’. This is not true. Originally the form was two words and the word ‘cannot’ is a compound word formed by ‘can + not’.

    The examples and explanations you gave are nonsense.

    I mean no offensive, but extra zombie rules make English more difficult than necessary.


    • petrocomputing Says:

      My American Heritage dictionary is quite clear: Cannot is the negative form of can. It does not give “can not” an option.
      And my examples are perfectly fine, thank you.

      • Patrick Says:

        It is not normal for dictionaries to provide word combinations except for idiomatic phrases, so ‘can not’ would not normally appear. A compound form such as ‘cannot’ would appear. Your dictionary does not specifically address the issue, unless there is a specific usage note comparing the two forms.

        The following references support the use of either ‘cannot’ or ‘can not’
        The A to Z of Correct English , by Angela Burt , page 32
        The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, page 126

        These three references are from the UK and refer to ‘cannot’ as being more common than ‘can not’.

        In addition, COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, shows that ‘can not’ is used in preference to ‘cannot’ in American English by 67, 373 to 67. The form ‘canot’ is rare at 10 insistences. According to the Oxford English Corpus the form ‘cannot’ is three times as common as ‘can not’ in British English.

        While I am sure you mean well, I am puzzled as to how the different meanings in your examples are derived. Can you find a well respected grammar reference book or usage guide (not a blog) that supports your examples? Do you have etymological evidence?

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