Cannot or Can Not?

By Maeve Maddox

Peter Ki asks:

What is the difference between ‘can not’ and ‘cannot’?

Although my personal Error Alarm buzzes whenever I see cannot written as two words, both forms are acceptable usage.

Merriam-Webster lists cannot as one word. If you try looking up “can not” in the online unabridged, you will be sent to a list of suggestions headed by cannot.

According to the entry in the OED, cannot is

the ordinary modern way of writing can not

The historical illustrations given for the negative in the OED shows cannot, can not, and even canot, as well as the contraction can’t:

?a1400 Cursor M. (add. to Cott.) p. 959. 105 And ou at he deed fore cannot sorus be. 1451 Paston Lett. 140 I. 186 Other tydyngs as yett can I non tell you. Ibid. 172 I. 229 Whethir it be thus or non I can not say. 15.. Plumpton Corr. 72, I canot get my money. 1706 Col. Records Penn. II. 256 The House cant agree to this. 1741 RICHARDSON Pamela I. 56 If he..as you say can’t help it. 1742 YOUNG Nt. Th. I. 89 An angel’s arm can’t snatch me from the grave; Legions of angels can’t confine me there. 1827 KEBLE Chr. Y. 4 Without Thee I cannot live. Mod. Can’t you go?

The experts at AskOxford seem to prefer cannot:

Both cannot and can not are acceptable spellings, but the first is much more usual. You would use can not when the ‘not’ forms part of another construction such as ‘not only.’

The Washington State University language site says:

These two spellings [cannot/can not] are largely interchangeable, but by far the most common is “cannot” and you should probably use it except when you want to be emphatic: “No, you can not wash the dog in the Maytag.”

Bottom line
There’s no difference in meaning between cannot and can not.

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93 Responses to “Cannot or Can Not?”

  • Clare Lynch

    I was taught “cannot” so anything else looks wrong to me!

  • spike1

    There is one use where can not works better than cannot.
    One of emphasis.
    Say, you’re having an argument.
    “You can NOT be serious!”
    For example.
    “You cannot be serious!” is weaker. Lacks emphasis on the not. And canNOT doesn’t take into account the pause between can and NOT. (or indeed, look right)

  • Jake

    It isn’t just for emphatic purposes. Some people (especially in philosophy or such fields) use the two to mean slightly different things as shown below:
    I cannot eat: I am not able to eat
    I can not eat: I am able not to eat

    Obviously, the use is somewhat limited, but it is very helpful.

  • John

    Please do not make pronouncements on subjects or topics that you are not reallhy qualified to judge.

    “Cannot” is unequivocal: it means you do not have a choice; something you cannot do is not something you “can” or “can not” do. It means that you are not able to do that thing.

    You “can” or “can not” take the dog for a walk, depending on your mood. If you are confined to bed with a broken leg, however, you “cannot” take the dog for a walk, regardless of your mood.

  • Maeve

    John,
    I suppose I’m as qualified as anyone to quote the authorities at Merriam-Webster, the OED, or Washington State University.

    Personally, I can’t see any reason to spell “cannot” as two words other than in a context in which the “not” belongs to another word group, such as “He can not only sing, but also dance.”

    I’d be interested to know the authoritative reference source on which you base your own distinction between “cannot” and “can not.”

  • Clare Lynch

    How restrained of you, Maeve. I’d have been tempted to tell him not to make pronouncements on subjects or topics without proofreading them first. Reallhy!

  • Alex

    While I understand the confusion, since most English teachers seem to promote an either-or approach to this question (while differing on which version is right), I’m dismayed that people seriously considering the issue continue to be confused. Clearly they mean different things.

    Cannot means just that: a thing cannot be. For example, I cannot wave a magic wand and make my dog turn into a cat.

    Can not means it can be, or can not be. You can be right, or you can not be right. Using the past or hypothetical version of can makes the rightness of this difference blindingly obvious. For example, I could not write this if I so chose. You could agree, or could not agree, as you think best.

    If something were to be deprecated, it might be cannot, since you can’t legitimately write couldnot of the past, only could not. But they’ve both been around a long time, and I think the language is enriched by accepting both in their separate contexts.

  • Paul

    To be clear, it would be preferable in my opinion to refrain from using “can not” to describe the ability to “choose not to” do something. Rather, in most cases of formal writing, it would be much clearer to rephrase this. For example, it would be better to say “I can eat or choose not to eat” rather than to say “I can eat or I can not eat”; or “Not only can I sing, but I can also play guitar” rather than “I can not only sing, but also play guitar.”

    One of the main reasons for this is how the two phrases sound when spoken aloud or to oneself. To hear the words “can not” together, it is hard to completely avoid the tendency to hear “cannot”, and thus give some of our cognition over to the possibility that the speaker “cannot” do something. Ultimately this is a barrier to communication, rather than a facilitator.

    Moreover, on a syntactical level I find it preferable to have consistent rules as a foundation of language, and the “cannot” rule lacks this consistency. Although I do find it preferable to use “cannot,” to “can not” I would hesitate to insist that they absolutely mean different things or that one is always preferable. Where are the words willnot, shallnot or doesnot, couldnot, shouldnot, etc. to fill the same purpose prescribed by this rule? Since these words do not exist (except in their contraction form), this inconsistency provides little rationale for a strict adherence to the “cannot” form, in my opinion.

  • edgy

    based on your comments, etc.:

    “cannot” is like “wish”

    and

    “can not” is like “hope”

    agree?

  • Laura

    I’m still confused. I am taking an online text editing course, and based on the book “The Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, Usage, and Formatting” required for the course, I have no idea which one to use. Both usages are confusing in the book and on the net.
    For example, in a sentence “Tom says that he can not bear to listen any more.”
    Which is appropriate to use? Cannot or Can not?
    By searching the net and also reviewing comments on this site, I am choosing to use “can not”.
    Another example, “that can not be true” I am choosing to use “can not” as well.
    I have to turn this work in tomorrow morning, but I would like to know what way would be more appropriate.
    Thanks

  • Paul

    Laura,

    This is pretty simple, really. If in spoken English you might find yourself saying “can’t”, then in formal English it is generally safer and more acceptable to write “cannot”; some style guide say that it is the only right way, and others would say that is acceptable either way, but it would not be wrong to use “cannot”, so you should use this.

    The only other usage of “can not” would closer in meaning to “may not” or “might not”. For example, “Joe can go to the party or he can not go to the party, the choice is up to him”. This is the only case where it would be incorrect to use “cannot”, because you aren’t trying to say that he does not have the ability to to go to the party, you are just saying that he “can” choose “not” to go to the party. I typically choose to avoid this kind of sentence construction anyway because, as I stated above, listeners are likely to be subtly confused by it, and at a subconscious level may have doubts about the actual meaning of the sentence. I would instead say something like “Joe can choose to go to the party or not to go, the choice is up to him.” This is clearer and avoids the dilemma.

    Hope this helps you in your paper and in your understanding.

  • BP

    I simply can NOT believe you all have time to debate this!

  • BB

    I can’t believe that you cannot.

  • BC

    I, on the contrary, cannot not believe it.

  • Tasara

    Well I think I might get it now how to use the word(s) cannot and can not.

    Conclusion:
    Use the word cannot when you don’t have a choise, so if you absolutely can’t do it.

    Use the two words separate ‘can not’ when you maybe can’t.
    So you can choose whether you can’t or can.

    Example: maybe not, might not..

    Thank you Paul & John for sharing your knowledge!

  • Alex

    Tasara, John, Paul,
    So nice to see people understanding and promoting the idea that the different forms in this situation necessitate different meanings. The definition of “can” sets it apart from words like “might” or “will.” “Might” and “will” always carry with them an implied possibility of occurrence. “Can,” on the other hand, occasionally truly is impossible. E.g., I cannot turn this laptop into a cupcake.

    This is why there is no term like “willnot” or “mightnot,” and why Paul’s note about “can not” being similar to “might not” is so appropriate. I like Paul’s phrasing recommendations as well, though occasionally “can not” is useful in the right context. E.g., I overheard a mother warn a misbehaving child, “I can not go to McDonalds, too,” clearly threatening to remove a treat.

    Some time ago I wrote a short essay on the subject: if you’re interested, Google “cannot vs. can not” for the alexfiles link 🙂

  • Wouter Mitty

    Hi Folks,

    I am a 45 yr old English man and can recall no example of seeing cannot written anywhere, not in newspapers, books, magazines or even online (though, no doubt, I will as soon as I stop typing this). It has come as a total suprise to me. I thought that outlook email was using an American dictionary when it changed “can not” to “cannot”, but seeing that it was English, I came online to find out what was going on. I feel somewhat dumbfounded, why have I never come across this?

  • Alex

    Dear Mr. Mitty,
    It may be new to you, but it’s not to the language. You should read more Abraham Lincoln. I recently read Team of Rivals, about his administration, and according to the excerpts quoted Lincoln used both, in different contexts.

    I had a similar background to yours. My first interest in this with this began with a surprising discussion with my 70-something mother-in-law (I was in my late 30s at the time). I had been brought up with “can not” from most English teachers (not all), and she had been schooled in “cannot.” Both of us had been taught it was an either-or situation, until a better-educated soul shared the difference with us.

  • Paul

    I think it is because of your age. I am 40 and when I learned grammar in elementary school the one-word version was taught as an optional way to use it. Somewhere along the line, probably in the late 1970’s I think MLA (and others?) agreed not only that “cannot” is the preferred form, but that “can not” is considered incorrect.

  • greeneyes

    (quote): Bottom line
    There’s no difference in meaning between cannot and can not. (end quote)

    There is actually.

    1) you can not only do this, but you can also do this …

    2) you cannot only do this, but you can also do this…

    The first means something, the second is gibberish

    Normally I would not write example 1 in that manner as it is cumbersome but the fact that I can proves “can not” and “cannot” are not identical.

  • M.Hewitt

    I am now more confused than ever. I see a great argument here, thats all. I see more insults than advice. I also see lots of people trying to make themselves “appear” smarter than the average person by belittlement . This is exactly what keeps people like me from asking such questions. We are taught that the only stupid question asked is the one not asked. I see more memory than intelligence here and I still “don’t” or “do not” know the difference between “can not” or “cannot” kids.
    I leave this page with the knowledge of the choice being what ever spell check chooses so it’s about whats comfortable to the personal eye.

  • Paul

    M. Hewitt,

    Actually I think there are some good points being made amidst the posturing, ironic typos, and insults. But if you want something more definitive my advice would be to go to the MLA or a similar resource.

    That said, my advice to you is as follows. The word “cannot” implies a lack of ability to do something, and it is therefore best to avoid the use of “can not” which can have a different meaning. The examples given above for some instances where the two words might still be acceptable are edge cases, and in my opinion they are, more often than not, inelegant and awkward. Just stick with “cannot” if you are referring to an “inability”; otherwise, then find some other way to put it that avoids the situation. I will provide the example of some cases where “cannot” would be incorrect, one more time, in the hope that it won’t further confuse you.

    Example: “I can go or I can not go.”

    This means that you have two choices: going or not going. It would be incorrect to say “I can go or I cannot go,” as this would mean that you don’t know whether or not you can go, i.e. either you have the ability to go or you do not have the ability to go, and you aren’t sure which one is true. But because this confusion may exist subconsciously even to the listener, let alone the reader, it is best to just rephrase the example using one of the following:

    “I can choose to go or not to go.”
    “I can go or stay.”
    “I can either go or not go.”

    These statements are much clearer. So even though it may be grammatically correct to phrase it the first way, “I can go or I can not go”, it is most certainly not the clearest way to phrase it.

  • Doug

    “Can not” is right, “cannot” is wrong–always (my opinion).

    “Can” and “may” are siblings. Who has written “maynot”?

  • Paul

    Doug, I would say that you are entitled to your opinion, but that might not be accurate, as the topic of the question is what the recognized authorities of English language consider to be correct, or preferred, and why.

    As this is a matter of fact, not opinion, I would venture to say that it is absolutely incorrect that “cannot” is always wrong. You are absolutely entitled to your beliefs and to your choice in how you write and speak, but I don’t know whether someone can be entitled to an opinion about an objective truth. Can I be entitled to an opinion that the Earth is flat (I know, a bit trite, but still useful)?

    On the other hand, I have definitely shared your opinion/observation about the discrepancy between “can” and “may”. I have just come to the conclusion that in this case it helps to follow the crowd. 🙂 In other areas I specifically choose non-conformance with the authorities, such as including trailing punctuation within the parentheses, or within quotes (unless someone is actually speaking and the punctuation is used as part of the speech rather than the sentence). In my opinion it is illogical to do this as the function of the punctuation relates more to the overall sentence or clause than to the citation or parenthetical. Perhaps I will start a new topic on this.

  • Alex

    Re: “can” and “may”

    These two are similar, but the situation is different for them.

    “Can” discusses the ability of a thing to happen. A thing can or can not happen. Sometimes it absolutely cannot happen.

    “May” discusses the opportunity, possibility, contingency of a thing. “May” always implies the possibility of a thing happening. It’s similar to “will” in this, which is driven by choice. “Can,” on the other hand, does not necessarily imply that a thing is possible, hence the opportunity for a formation such as “cannot,” which describes the impossible (not just the improbable).

    All three terms work here:
    I can not post this note.
    I may not post this note.
    I will post this note 😉

    Only one is meaningful here:
    I cannot transform myself into a quasar.
    I may not transform myself into a quasar.
    I will not transform myself into a quasar.

    The last two are nonsensical, and could only be said for whimsy or madness, precisely because “may” and “will” imply an option.

    Hoping this was helpful!

  • Paul

    Alex,

    I think the point about “can” and “may” was only to illustrate that they have different forms in the negative, and that there is no word “maynot”. While some confuse the meaning of these two terms, I don’t believe that is in question here.

    I disagree with you on some of these points. You said: “A thing can or can not happen. Sometimes it absolutely cannot happen.”

    If you are saying that “a thing might or might not happen” then the term “might” should be used. If, when you say “can or can not happen”, you are saying that it is possible for it not to happen, then using “can not happen” is confusing. To the *listener* they may think that you are questioning whether the thing is even possible, when actually you are just stating that *both* the thing happening and the thing *not* happening are possibilities. Thus, to avoid this confusion when spoken aloud, you should not write it as such either. Rather, to say that both happening and not happening are possibilities, you should say something else, such as “it is possible for the thing to happen or not to happen” or “the thing might or might not happen”.

    In addition, using the phrase “can not happen” to indicate the possibility of non-occurrence is a bit odd from a structural perspective. It might be best to illustrate this using syntax as you would in a computer program.

    1) cannot(happen) – meaning: it is not possible

    2) can not(happen) – meaning: it is not possible (possibly emphatically so)

    3) can(not happen) – meaning: it is possible for it not to happen (also implying that it might be possible for it to happen, but we don’t know for sure)

    I would argue that because #1 and #2 usually mean the same thing, and #3 means something very different, and since #1 is clearly accepted, the best choice is to avoid using #3, and stick to either #1 or #2, with #1 being the preferred option.

    In other languages this distinction is clearer. For instance, in French, to say “he cannot talk” you would say “il ne peut pas parler”. The “ne…pas” is the negating condition on “peut” which is 3rd person singular conjugation of “can”. Note that the negation is not put around “parler” (to speak), and in French there would be no way to make this mistake. You simply would not say he can [not-speak]. You would be more explicit about whether it was a choice to speak, or a luck of the draw, because “can” refers to “ability” which either exists or does not exist.

    Finally, you said:

    All three terms work here:
    I can not post this note.
    I may not post this note.
    I will post this note 😉

    Only one is meaningful here:
    I cannot transform myself into a quasar.
    I may not transform myself into a quasar.
    I will not transform myself into a quasar.

    The last two are nonsensical, and could only be said
    for whimsy or madness, precisely because “may” and
    “will” imply an option.

    I differ on two points.

    1. Whether the phrase “I can not post this note” *works* is debatable. It depends what you mean and whether it is clearly understood, and sense we’ve established that the meaning is ambiguous when the words “can” and “not” are separate, I think it is unclear whether it really “works”, per se.

    2. I take strong offense to saying that “I will not transform myself into a quasar” is meaningless. I derive much meaning from this. I say it to myself every morning as a mantra. 🙂

    Paul

  • Paul

    Oops meant to say “since”, not “sense”

  • Alex

    @Paul

    LOL! You might be interested in a very similar discussion on http://www.english-test.net/forum/ftopic8863-15.html (english-test dot org), in case the link is edited out.

    Full disclosure: I’m user name “Logical” in the discussion.

  • Alex

    @Paul

    LOL! You might be interested in a very similar discussion on http://www.english-test.net/forum/ftopic8863-15.html (english-test dot net), in case the link is edited out.

    Full disclosure: I’m user name “Logical” in the discussion.

  • Erik

    It’s trivial, and many above have gotten it right. “You can not do X” is not proscriptive. It does not mean that you are incapable of doing X, it just means that you are capable of not doing it. It does not say whether you are capable of doing it. Whereas “You cannot do X” says that you are incapable of doing it.

  • Jennifer

    Erik,

    I think you have officially confused more people than you have helped. Why don’t you learn the proper meaning of the words then just making things up!! I cannot listen to your nonsense anymore!!

    By the way, the only thing trivial is interpreting what you wrote!

  • Mr.mamoon jadallah

    To Maeve Maddox,

    thank you very much for your valuable information.

    B.Regards,

    M.Jad

  • Ria Garland

    I was schooled starting in 50’s & 60’s, as far as learning to spell. I was taught “cannot” is the correct way, not “can not”. However, some people have shown me here there are times that two words are appropraite. I cannot help it when I see can not used that I just almost cringe. I mean it was such a big deal that we learn the correct way to spell cannot that I cannot get over such wide use of can not.

  • Karen

    I’m with Wouter Mitty here: I would have said that I have never seen cannot – except in something written in American English. I was taught in Britain in the 1960s that it was always can not, and despite Word’s British English dictionary insistence on cannot, I’m sticking with that because to my eyes it looks better.

  • Dee

    I’m one of the ones who was surprised to hear this debate. I’ve never seen/noticed cannot until now. I’m in my 40s too. Odd that we missed this. I’m inclined to go with the OED which certainly seems to be saying this is an alternative spelling.

  • Dee

    Although, I’m an American. In fact, when I first saw this in a client’s work that I was editing, I assumed it was British. 🙂

  • JaneMarie

    Fearing to make a mistake, I chose not to say a word. I can not speak. With no vocal chords I cannot talk.

    I can not do my homework assignment when I cannot understand the instructions.

    I am inarticulate enough that I can not speak unless I wave my hands around gesturing. For a time after an injury neither arm moved. My words cannot reside in my arms because people did indeed still communicate with me. People again tease me about my bird wings flapping gestures when I talk.

    Although can and may perhaps are siblings I never ask permission to speak because I often think I am worth listening to. The audience must decide when to ignore my communicative art form. It is up to the presenter to clarify whether or not the proper understanding has been made.

    I have the ability to say things in different ways. It is best if I change awkward sentence structure. I cannot not say it many ways.

    With injury I cannot move my arms. Even after recovering arm movement I cannot fly when I flap my arms about. I can choose not to go somewhere in an airplane. I can not fly the plane nor am I a pilot. I can not fly like a bird. I cannot fly like a pilot.

    The more I learn the more I find I cannot understand because the educated folks can not agree among themselves.

  • JK Brennan

    🙂 Interesting. Well, I have learned a few things and I know now that I wil continue using both, depending on the situation, just as I’ve always done. I cannot not laugh when reading the heated comments here. ROFL

  • Shalem Arasavelli

    If we got this much of debate for One word, how it would be having this type of debate on every English word?

  • Dr. Brad Lee (Ph.D Eng. Lit.)

    @John, Paul, Tasara, et al – pretty much any of you other than the author.

    I love all of your ill-conceived and unsupported OPINIONS about the subtle nuances you perceive between “cannot” and “can not” . In truth, there are NO such distinctions other than in context. You can choose to believe that there are (distinctions), and you are all welcomed to write in any way that best gets what you want to say across. Beyond that – you’re just plain wrong, incorrect, ill-informed, and ignorant.

    The FACT is, there is no difference whatsoever between “can not,”= “cannot,” and “can’t.” The latter two are simply a contraction of the former and carry no additional nuance of meaning whatsoever. ‘Cannot’ can be used interchangeably in any and all examples where you’d use “can not” and ditto for “can’t” – and they’d all be 100% correct. None of you will be able to find one shred of evidence to support your claims otherwise because there is none.
    Thank You
    Dr. Brad L. Lee, Ph. D
    Dept. of English Studies
    Paramount Study Systems

  • Kasper

    Paramount Study Systems? You can not be serious…

    I think Paul offers compelling examples of contexts in which “can not” offers a nuanced philosophical meaning – in emphasizing one’s will/capacity to not act. Ultimately, language, grammar and common usage all represent a kind of shared agreement and not a series of absolute rules or facts. We have come to accept and privilege certain standards, but to be so dismissive of a healthy discussion about possible nuances is ignorant. Language is in constant negotiation with meaning and context, and being an active and reasoned member of that negotiation means far more than your Ph. D.

  • agussatoto

    what about this sentence:

    I can not the fish but the fruit.

    It is evident that can may mean ‘having the ability to’ and the word not, when put next to it, will negate the meaning to ‘having not the ability to’ Is the above sentence correct, logically, grammatically, semantically, and poetically? Does it mean ‘Please can the fruit, not the fish?

    agus satoto
    bekasi, west java, indonesia

  • John

    Well, the arguments here for “cannot” vs “can not” seem to oft run into the philosophy of words, somehow trying to explain that separating the words implies the “not” works on the “can”…but doesn’t do so with “cannot”…and that’s somehow different. Or a sentence like “He can not only run, he can jump.” is in any way different than “He cannot only run, he can jump.”. Or that “He can NOT do that!” is any different than “He CANNOT do that!”. You know what happened right? I think the situation is more simple. People started to spell it as “cannot” and people started to accept that…and it made it’s way into the dictionary much in the same way we update the dictionary today with new words all the time…and past slang then becomes the norm.

  • Charles

    It would appear that the authorities on this matter agree with Paul and co. that there can be two meanings of “can not” but unfortunately for his argument, the word “cannot” can also carry both of those meanings as they are strictly equivalent.

    Maybe we should promote the disuse of “can not” and “cannot” to be replaced in all sensible circumstances by either “am not able to” or “am able to not” depending on intended meaning. For consistency’s sake I would also propose the disuse of “can” to be replaced with “am able to”.

  • Church

    First of all, get with the program and use The Chicago Manual Of Style.
    Then, use some sense and deduce the nuances.
    Finally, always be consistent.

  • Shirley

    What an interesting discussion! I have always had concerns about the usage of “cannot” and “can not.” Well, I am even more confused, but I enjoyed the postings. Although, I recently defended my dissertation, but never you “cannot” or its sibling in my writing -:) Again, I enjoyed.

  • Catherine

    English grammar should be considered when you decide whether to use cannot or can not.

    “Can” is a helping verb and “not” is an adverb.
    What part of speech is “cannot” considered? I don’t find it in any “helping verb” list or I don’t see it labeled as an adverb.

    I have always written can not as two words based on grammar.

  • Jonuichi

    I actually got in a small argument yesterday with my foster mother about this!

    I was required to write a letter to the protection services, and at one point said “my parents cannot afford to pay for ___”, she jumped on me and said “cannot is not a word, its can not”… When Microsoft Word told me in that context, it’s cannot!

    Though, she did also tell me I wrote too formally for it to have looked like a 16 year old writing but this article was very helpful!

  • Ben

    I was taught that cannot applied in the context of ability, whereas can not applied in the context of permission.

    For ex:
    “You cannot sing in the choir!” would mean “You are not allowed to sing.”

    “You can not sing in the choir!” would mean “You are permitted not to sing.”

  • Lawrence

    I’d just like to know why “cannot” came to be considered correct. Is it just because that’s the way it is, like “somebody” is considered more correct than “some body”? Inquring word geeks want to know.

  • John Ndukwe

    “cannot” is the negative form the auxiliary verb “can”
    Example- They cannot read the letters.

    “can not” when used with “only” means in addition.
    Example- I can not only dance but sing.
    The above example suggests that I can do the two things: sing and dance.

  • WormCan

    You cannot write cannot? or can’t write can not cannot?

  • Patrick

    I don’t think “cannot” and “can not” mean different things, though I agree with the well-made points above that “can not” could have a different interpretation to “cannot” in context. I prefer to use “cannot” for some reason and that’s why I don’t like seeing the words separated when the intended use in the context is “can’t”.

    “Can’t” and “cannot” are the same thing (both contractions of “can not”) and they mean the same thing (the inability to do something). Both “can’t” and “cannot” are defined as “can not”, and it makes sense that “can not” is not in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, because it is just the negation of can. So in that sense, technically all 3 are equivalent, and Maeve and the authorities were correct in saying that both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, and I do think “cannot” is more common. If you look up “could not” or “will not”, neither is in the dictionary. But their contractions are listed. That’s why “cannot” is listed in the dictionary, but I too would be interested why “cannot” is generally considered more correct (who knows, it could be because of the nuances discussed above by others).

    The main support for “can not” meaning something different is when used to mean “choose not to”, e.g. “I can not go to bed and go to a party instead.” The negation of can is rarely used this way because the sentence structure is poor and the meaning is unclear. That’s why there isn’t really a difference between “cannot” or “can not” in more common sentences (I don’t think that “cannot” inherently implies the inability to do something while “can not” implies the choice). Think about this sentence on a Website form: The fields with an asterisk are required and can not be blank. Replace “can not” with “cannot” or “can’t” and it means the same thing. In that context, it can’t mean anything other than the fields must not be empty. Personally, I would prefer “cannot” in that instance only because it looks better to me.

    I didn’t particularly like Maeve’s bottom line “There’s no difference in meaning between cannot and can not.”, but it is not wrong. Both forms can be used and would be correct. That being said, to make the intended interpretation clearer, I think it’s better to re-write the sentence if “can not” is being used to imply “choose not to”, otherwise use “cannot” when “can’t” can be substituted in its place. I would edit the bottom line to be “there’s no difference between cannot and [can’t].” to make it more obvious when to use cannot. For those still confused, re-read Paul’s great comments from Sept 21 and Nov 6 2009.

  • TheSongFrog

    Wow. People can come up with amazing reasons for justifying their beliefs, regardless of whether there is any factual basis. All you’ve managed to prove is that both “cannot” and “can not” have been in common usage for centuries and are recorded in numerous dictionaries. Remember, however, that there are many “common” words in dictionaries, and that hasn’t necessarily earned them any place of honor when it comes to correct usage.

    I have no doubt that “cannot” is merely a lazy, coarse and ignorant way of writing “can not.” As such, either form is correct for casual or “common” writing. For professional or formal writing, however, I prefer “can not” as the actual correct form. That is what I was taught, even into college, and that is as it will stay.

    Unfortunately, many people observe only the “common” form, don’t understand that it is made up of two words, and conclude that it is correct in all cases. Thus we get sentences that read, for example, “I cannot only see the cottage but the dock as well.” (By the way, there are two errors in that sentence model, but many people would be lucky to find even the more obvious one.)

  • Maeve

    SongFrog,
    I cannot understand your aversion to the spelling of “cannot” as one word. “Lazy, coarse, ignorant”? The worst I can think of to say about your preferred spelling of “can not” is that it’s an acceptable alternate spelling, but that current usage–as reflected in the OED, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and the AP Stylebook–prefers “cannot.”

  • Patrick

    @TheSongFrog,

    1. If the obvious error you are referring to in your example sentence is the use of “cannot”, you would write the sentence with the words separated as “I can not only see the cottage but the dock as well”, agreed? In that case, why couldn’t you replace it with “can’t”? “I can’t only see the cottage but the dock as well.” Another example, “I can’t only sing, I can also dance.” It may look or sound unusual, but technically it is not wrong (it’s the contraction). Therefore, if you can use “can’t” you can logically use “cannot”, whether you think it is lazy, ignorant, common, or whatever your opinion. Though as I said, I do believe “can not” is a better choice for this type of sentence.

    2. You started your post by saying people come up with reasons to justify their beliefs without any factual basis. Where is your “factual basis”? You said yourself that “either form is correct for casual or ‘common’ writing. For professional or formal writing, however, [you] prefer ‘can not’ as the actual correct form.” Preference is not a fact or a form of proof. You can stick with what you were taught, which is completely understandable and not incorrect. But every one is taught different ways by different people, so the method you were taught also does not serve as proof. The authorities say both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, but “cannot” is usually preferred. So if you insist on using “can not” instead of “cannot” in the context of “can’t” because you think it is more formal or professional, it could actually be counter-productive because it is not the accepted use, and could cause confusion because the reader is trying to distinguish those instances that “not” is followed by “only”. If we can’t go by what authorities or style guides tell us, then what proof is acceptable?

  • Dmitry

    Hi all,
    What an exciting discussion here! 🙂
    I wonder why people keep coming here to post considered that Paul has covered the subject in all aspects.
    Especially in his post of March 18, 2011 2:57 pm, which is really brilliant! 🙂

    @TheSongFrog:
    Although I am not a native speaker, I dare get rid of both errors below:
    “I can see not only the cottage but the dock as well.”

  • John

    What’s missing in this whole thread is some analysis of the citations to support the initial assertion.

    The answer from Ask Oxford is quite easily interpretable as an endorsement of Alex’s view. The Washington State University Language site is not even a site endorsed by the University but one professor’s home page. In the citation of the historical use of cannot it looks like an evolution toward cannot and it could be quite easily argued that “can not” (literal) is not used in single one of those cases where it means unable too. The one place it is cited is a fine example of how vague that construction is without some context.

    Alex is quite simply correct here.

  • chas

    Writing hath no value, were it not to be read. Is not style and rhythm an inalienable right reserved to the author of the art?

    Perchance I shall lift a line from Shakespeare, to inquire of Oxford if the words hath been used or abused. Embarrassment likely shall follow.

    In my not Shakespearian example of can not, I stand behind the usage for emphasis, rhythm, and the fact that the object of shame is “not be stopped”. “be stopped” by itself has no meaning.

    Remember, this is NOT entertainment. It is only to be read by people who really want to. In the 4th grade we were shown a film about the Russian Revolution. The teacher started this film, and left the room. The narrator droned on about how there was so much hate, both sides wanted not only to kill, but to disfigure their enemy. On the screen, dozens of people were being lined up and shot multiple times in the face with rifles from very close range. I was horrified by my classmates, who were drooling and cheering in a very bloodthirsty way. These were real people after all, and NOT cartoon characters who were being killed. Children need to learn something about courage and character, before being exposed to bloodthirsty stuff. Alerted by the noise, the teacher returned, and immediately stopped the film. It was all a big mistake; it was the wrong film. It’s a crying shame hate can not be stopped so easily.

  • Dean

    Reading the above it seems the consensus is simply that;
    Cannot = can’t
    Can not [do whatever it is] = Has the ability to not [do whatever it is]

    Which makes a great deal of sense.

    So for two examples;
    ‘I cannot run’ would mean the person can’t run for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t have legs, or are too out breath to physically muster up the energy.

    Whereas,
    ‘I can not run’ would mean the person doesn’t have to. As in what the hare thought in the story of the Hare and tortoise, or if you’ve got a note to avoid gym practice.

    The person can ‘not run’, as opposed to cannot ‘run’.

  • HLANGL

    English is not my native language, but IMHO, I think that both versions are correct. But the option to use which one depends on the context & the emphasis you need to put. My understanding is that “cannot” is the general usage & it’s not that emphatic. “Can not”, the two-words version, is much more emphatic. “You can not go wrong.” means “There’s absolutely no way that you can go wrong.”. So the situation is more like “Have this.” vs “Do have this.”. Both mean essentially the same thing, still you put more emphasis when you say “can not” by using the two words separately thereby highlighting the “NOT” quite explicitely. When you say “cannot”, the meaning is more casual & you certainly put less emphasis on it. But, after all, emphasis is something highly subjective & fussy, so I feel you can not come to a unanimous conclusion in a topic like this.

  • Brian Madden

    Sorry Maeve. You are incorrect.

    I noticed a number of posts that understand the correct usage.

    Anything you say in a sentence following the word ‘can’, has the possibility of happening or not happening.

    EXAMPLE #1: “I can go to the store.”
    In this example, the speaker ‘can go’ or ‘can not go’ to the store.

    You understand here that the abridged version means that two scenarios CAN take place.

    EXAMPLE #2: “I cannot go to the store.”
    In this example the speaker’s actions are one; that is, he is not going to the store.

    You can understand here that the word unabridged version does not allow for the action described (“go to the store”) to happen. When abridged, the person “can” OR “can not” go.

    Using the abridged version, if used correctly, would hardly ever be used at all. Why? Because, again, if you ‘can not’ do something, that means you also ‘can’ do it, which negates the whole scenario and isn’t even worth mentioning.

    Try using it:

    “Mark, you can not eat my dessert!”

    Technically, Mark can eat dessert. He also can ‘choose’ not to.

    It would help many people if, whenever they abridge the word, put the word “choose” between ‘can’ and ‘not’, because that’s basically what you mean.

    “Mark, you cannot eat my the dessert!”

    Then, technically, he ‘shouldn’t’ by what the person is telling Mark. But with the power of free will, he can be an jerk and do whatever he wants (and, of course, he also ‘can not’ be a jerk!).

    EXAMPLE #3: When a husband tells a wife he “can not/cannot go to her parents house”.

    Decide for yourself. I know what us men are thinking!

  • Brian Madden

    Maeve, I also noticed that you ask people who disagree with you to cite authoritative references.

    You are asking something that is so trivial and easily understood if you put some little thought into it. It’s completely bogus you ask for references. It’s basic English. Some people don’t know what they are talking about, if you reference them or not.

    SIMPLE: If you ‘can not’ do a task, then you also CAN do it. If you ‘cannot’ do a task, then there is NO CHANCE you can do it.

    I noticed a bunch of people who had it right. Especially Erik on April 10, 2011 who put it in such simple concept. But after I read the following post by ‘Jennifer’, I realized some people were just never going to get it. Hence the reason the argument exists.

  • PJRCOFFEE

    Since there are some who religiously use “can not” and others who use “cannot” at all times, it would appear that replacing both of them with “choose not to ” when appropriate might make communication clearer.

    The purpose of writing is to allow the reader to understand what is inside your head so seeing a difference between the two spellings would not communicate to some what you precisely mean. Rephrasing may allow true communication to happen.

    Besides, in most situations many would use “can’t” anyway.

  • Patrick (not the same one as above)

    You guys are awesome.

    It seems like there are some on this thread that are missing a fundamental point about language. That point being, it changes.

    I remember 15 or so years ago when I was in high school and I was told, “Use ‘cannot’ and if you don’t, you are wrong!” Or something to that effect. Somehow, I still ended up on this site unsatisfied with that answer.

    It just seems to me that there are a lot of people who are looking for an answer. Well, if you want an answer, use ‘cannot’ and, most likely, no one will throw that much of a fit over it.

    If instead, you enjoy the journey and are actually interested in gaining a deeper understanding of what it is you are saying, I would say, stop, take a moment, and think about it. It doesn’t seem like there is anything wrong to me with using ‘can not’ when it makes sense to do so. Neither of the words are misspelled and you can certainly use them independently. So why all this fuss? Right, because ‘cannot’ and ‘can not’ actually do mean slightly different things and, if you do stop to think about it, you cannot help but arrive at that conclusion.

  • Fitty Stim

    I don’t remember ever even seeing the expression “cannot” in high school or college (80’s/90’s). Maybe it’s just because this was an age before SpellChecker? It looks wrong and, if I may be so bold, like something an uneducated person (or a Tweeter) would write.

    And just as no one (noone?) would write donot or willnot or shallnot, I refuse to write cannot ever again…

  • eternia

    In U.K., cannot is the correct form.
    You are free to use whatever you want in the U.S.A., in Philippines, in Singapore. Especially Singapore. There is even this film title : “I not stupid too”
    Ha ha.
    So, yeah, I cannot believe how some people keep asking question, “I am still confused.” or “I am a grandpa, and I have never seen cannot.”

  • Ashley

    Studying both ‘can not’ and ‘cannot’ from a historical perspective, both phrases have an exactly identical etymological history. Both ‘can not’ and ‘cannot’ refer to an inability to do something. The -only- difference between the two is that one is a compound word. The original difference between the two had the same origin as all the other differences in spelling which were very nearly ubiquitous in every period until the advent of wide-spread and widely available dictionaries, coupled with the education needed to use them.

    Keep in mind, we are talking about proper English usage here. The entire philosophical slant addressed by many in this discussion is not only spurious, but misleading. In -one specific context- there is a difference between ‘can not’ and ‘cannot’, and that difference is based on a completely arbitrary decision regarding philosophical definitions. However, that decision has no bearing at all on proper English usage. Many English words have more exact, or even completely different meanings in specific contexts than they do in general usage.

    In addition, keep in mind that “can’t” is a direct abbreviation of cannot. If you ever use can’t, you can also use cannot. In fact, ‘can not’ is not found often in the majority of the English-speaking world. Use of ‘can not’ dates mostly from the birth of the US, and is found among a flurry of other changes made to English in order to differentiate the US from England. Many accepted the change, many did not.

    Therefore both are correct in any situation, unless you are using typography to denote emphasis, or if you’re discussing philosophy.

  • Kennice

    Cannot mean something is imposible while can not writen apart mean in addition to.for example:Ade cannot sing. He can not only sing but also dance.that mean he can sing as well as dance

  • Maria

    I am not a native English speaker, but I learned about 13 years of English, and for me “cannot” seems instinctively incorrect. I suppose because similar terms (like “willnot”) don`t exist. But I can get used to “cannot”, if the term “can not” would be used to emphasis the world NOT, and when it`s not the question of ability, but choise. In the dictionary I read: “can not= an auxiliary verb expressing incapacity, inability, withholding permission, etc;” So when it expresses choice then it`s can not?

    I have the impression that I want to emphasise in all cases the term NOT.
    For example: “A girl can not tell a man when exactly he must do a thing. A man can not make something happen before its time.”
    Here I think I should use can not instead of cannot.

    What do you say?

  • Kyndal

    “John on June 11, 2009 3:49 am
    Please do not make pronouncements on subjects or topics that you are not reallhy qualified to judge.
    “Cannot” is unequivocal: it means you do not have a choice; something you cannot do is not something you “can” or “can not” do. It means that you are not able to do that thing.
    You “can” or “can not” take the dog for a walk, depending on your mood. If you are confined to bed with a broken leg, however, you “cannot” take the dog for a walk, regardless of your mood.”

    This John guy acts like a pretentious jerk.

  • But

    Sorry, but the argument about “cannot” being more unequivocal than “can not” is bogus. This belief must stem from spoken sentences where “not” is emhasized, e.g. “I can go or I can NOT go”. I guess in writing “cannot” makes it clearer that there is no emphasis on the “not” part, but that is pretty much the only difference between the two.

    I use both, often beacuse “can’t” sometimes looks untidy and too informal in writing.

  • Brad

    I read about half of the comments then got bored and skipped the rest so I apologise if this has already been said but I just wanted to share my view point.

    In my opinion, “can not” should rarely be used. “Cannot” is the opposite of “can” as I see it. “Can” implies a possibility and “cannot” implies an impossibility.

    Writing “can not” isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is a messy way of phrasing something and I don’t really like seeing it. For example, “I can go or I can not go” does makes sense, but I feel it should be “I can go or I can stay”. Another example I saw someone using was “I can talk or I can not talk” which would sound better (at least in my opinion) as “I can talk or I can keep quiet/remain silent/etc”.

    As I have said, it’s not wrong, it just seems “messy” to me.

  • Brad

    Sorry just wanted to correct something – can and cannot are more about capability and incapability, rather than possibility and impossibility.

    Also I suppose I missed out my opinion on the main issue here – whether or not “cannot” and “can not” mean the same thing. They don’t in my opinion. The confusion comes from emphasis being used in speech. For example, when someone says “you can NOT be serious!” You are really just emphasizing the word “cannot”. It’s like saying “that is UN believable”. It’s one word but you are stretching it out to add emphasis. If it were actually “you can not be serious” then that would be like saying “you can be joking around”, which is different, and would be a very strange thing to say to someone who has just told you something that you find hard to believe.

  • Kasper

    I believe, that ‘Cannot’ is used when something is impossible.

    For instance: You cannot take the car, because it is broken.

    ‘Can not’ is used when you are not allowed to do something, like ‘May not’.

    For instance: You can not take the car, because I say so!

    Let me know if I’m wrong, hope this helped.

  • Angela

    I am sorry, but how is it possible for some of you people to find -can not wrong, when it is just like any other verb, despite being modal, and it has the same negative form like all the others, otherwise how could it ever be -can’t (short form) if it is not -can not (long form), whereas getting -can’t from -cannot seems rather stupid. Anyway, as I have learned this things throughout the years, I came to the conclusion that they are both of acceptable usage, and your comments about the can not used with -only are invalid, because then we’re talking about the context of the sentence not about the negative form of the VERB. How is it possible for -do, to have a negative form -> do not/does not and a shortened negative form -> don’t/doesn’t (or any other verb, ex. have – have not/haven’t), and the poor little verb -can to not have this negative form ? Or maybe it’s donot/havenot but we haven’t realised that yet. Cheers.

  • Sally

    “However, although split infinitives can sound awkward, many writers, recognizing that the traditional prescriptive ban of such constructions was founded on a misguided effort to emulate the supposedly perfect grammar of Latin, consider them acceptable”.

    Methinks, you are something of a prescriptivist, Mark. The split infinitive has been more than ‘acceptable,’ it has been *normal* in English for centuries and the Latinists should be told to just build a bridge and get over it (the same fate should befall their other hobby-horses of “It’s me” and singular ‘they’).

    As http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/grammar/splitinf.html explains, “English doesn’t *have* an infinitive form of the verb in the way a language like French [or Latin] does. French ‘succéder’ is a single word [as is Latin ‘amare’], but English ‘to succeed [‘to love’] is not; it’s two words, one a subordinator (to) and the other a verb (the plain form of the lexeme ‘succeed’) which is the head of a verb phrase.”

    Good work on the others though!

  • Sally

    Ooops, wrong page! :O

  • D Miller

    I am writing a novel, I can not believe all the fuss made over this i don’t care if you think I wrote that incorrectly, can not is passive (I hear the groans), I write, I do not believe all the fuss, I do not see a point to the futility of the can not debate. I write active prose: John threw the ball and not The ball was thrown by John. Was denotes passive, why isn’t the contraction acceptable, I can’t seriously believe all the fuss. Insult someone else, you’re wasting your literary arrows on me. It is up to the writer and the reader will pass by the one or two words in a blink of an eye and not care

  • Baruch Atta

    So, if both are correct, how can I modify Microsoft Word to accept “can not”?

  • John

    After reading the comments, I think I have a better understanding. Personally, I never used ‘cannot’ while growing up. in fact, it wasn’t until Microsoft Word started flagging ‘can not’ in my documents that I realized there was an issue.

    Anyway, the following might be helpful to those reading these comments:

    John can (go) to the store
    John can (not go) to the store

    In the above, ‘not’ doesn’t really belong with ‘can’, it belongs with ‘go’, so it makes sense to use “can not”. When you think of it this way, John has the ability to go to the store or to not go to the store. When you say:

    John cannot go to the store

    it seems to imply that John is unable to go to the store.

    As for “can’t”, I thought contractions were the combination of two words, so to me, “can’t” is a shortening of “can not”. I can’t think of any contractions that shorten a single word.

    My $0.02.

  • round

    The reason why only cannot is spelled as one word while the other modal auxiliary verbs are all written separately is quite simple.

    Because CAN ends in -n and NOT starts in N, too.

    That’s a phonetic reason, not a grammatical, constructional, semantic reason.

    Spelling is a method of recording “how the words are heard”.
    In fact, historically, the spelling “canot” even existed, only because “can not” sounded so! But both “CAN” and “NOT” have their meanings and “cannot” is more logical than “canot”, so CANNOT survived.

    If the negative meaning is emphasized, the pronunciation “canNOT” sounds more separately like “can NOT”, so for that purpose, “can not” is still used.

    If you try to find the reason why “cannot” is spelled as one word grammatically, it won’t take you anywhere. That’s a phonetic reason.

  • Baruch Atta

    I use “can not” in FORMAL writing, or in TECHNICAL writing, where it is not colloquial usage. Damn that Microsoft Word that keeps catching it and asking to correct it. Morons!

  • Candace

    I feel like they mean slightly different things. “You can not speak” means you can choose to remain silent, whereas “You cannot speak” means that you are unable to speak.

  • Bryan

    I’ve always understood “can not” to mean “does not have to,” while “cannot” means “is unable to.”
    Examples: “What do you mean, I *have* to go? I can *not* go.”
    “I broke my foot, I cannot (or ‘can’t’) go.”

  • Josh

    Interesting. I have always used “can not”. Whenever I read “cannot” in an email or article, I assumed the author was mistaken. The other day my spell check told me I was wrong.
    “Cannot” always seemed as though it was condensed into one word the way weekend used to be the week’s end. Will need more info, but some great posts here.

  • Amanda G.

    “I can not believe that I read this whole blog. Now I cannot fall asleep (because I am not able. All, thanks for sharing.” 😉 Paul, I’ve especially enjoyed reading your literature.

  • Foster

    I fail to see why we don’t use the words “can’t” or “can NOT” instead of cannot or can not. I’ve used can’t my whole life, but on occasions like,”I can NOT believe you!!!” I have used can NOT, not cannot or simply can not.
    To me, cannot (like Josh said) means that someone forgot to put a space between can and not.
    Also, can not feels weird purely because I was raised using can NOT or can’t.

  • SeaBee

    “No, you can not wash the dog in the Maytag.” – I will not give you permission to wash the dog …..

    “No, you cannot wash the dog in the Maytag.” – It is not possible to wash the dog ……. In truth you can, but it is inadvisable as the dog will likely die.

  • Tim

    In my mind, the difference arises from the fact that “can” is a measure of ability to do something, not requirement. “Cannot” is the negative version of “can” and indicates the inability to do something, whereas “can not” merely indicates the ability to not do something.
    “Can’t” is a contraction of cannot, and although it has very little use in formal writing, can be used to indicate the inability to “not do” something (e.g. “I can’t not go to the mall: Mr. Hankey is going to be there!”).

  • Tim

    Dear Moderator,
    I do not intend for this comment to be published, merely to ask you to edit a grammatical error that I made in my previous post. I wrote “”Can’t” is a contraction of cannot, and although…”, but the comma should actually go after the and (“”Can’t” is a contraction of cannot and, although…”) because it should be being used to set off an appositive, not to separate clauses in what I had originally intended to be a compound sentence.
    Thank you,
    Tim

  • Baruch Atta

    I am still waiting for Microsoft to correct the bug in their Word application.

    I will not go.
    I may not be able to.
    I could not see that far.
    I should not try that.
    I CAN NOT believe that can not is unacceptable.

  • whatsapp-status.co.com

    Both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, although it’s more common to see the one-word spelling–“cannot.”

    A quick and dirty memory tip is to think of a magician taunting a rabbit with a carrot saying, “You cannot have the carrot.” Extend the R’s in “carrot” to the bottom of the line and, voila, the “carrot” turns into a “cannot.”

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