Cannot or Can Not?

By Maeve Maddox - 1 minute read

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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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94 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.

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