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Cannot Or Can Not? One Word Or Two?

Cannot? Can not? Ever wonder which is more appropriate—“cannot” or “can not”? Really, both are fine, interchangeable, and mean “unable to do” something. However, “cannot” is used far more commonly, and you should use that form in your writing.

The exceptions? You can use “can not” for emphasis: “I can not stand you!”

You can also use “can not” to describe not being able to do something only: “Jane can come to the movies or she can not.” But come on, this is really awkward. You are better off rewriting your sentence for additional clarity: “Jane can come to the movie or she can stay with Jon.”

Another example of “can not”: “If taking the side streets works for you, I can not take the highway as I’d intended.” Again, a rewrite clarifies this sentiment: “If taking the side streets works for you, I won’t take the highway.”

Bottom line: use “cannot” in your writing. Or, do some editing.

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6 Responses to Cannot Or Can Not? One Word Or Two?

  1. I get dinged by the spell check every time I write ‘can not’. Like Gideon I think of the pattern: can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t. ‘Cannot’ looks funny to me; I wonder how it was spelled in Dick & Jane. In everyday speech, I say ‘can’t’, so the issue doesn’t come up. How about you? When writing more formal memos, the issue arises. I do buy into the explanation below about reserving “can not” for emphasis.


    “The only context in which can not, two words, occurs is as an emphatic alternative: “You can do it, or you can not do it.” In that case, it is clearly two separately spoken words, with the not given special emphasis, and equally clearly it means something very different from cannot, namely “have the option of not (doing something).””

  2. When written, the two-word version always strikes me as an odd pairing of a positive and a negative. The word ‘can’ generally means ‘to be able to”. For example, to say “He can not attend tomorrow’s meeting” seems to mean “He is able to not attend tomorrow’s meeting” Why go to the trouble of saying that someone can do something that he can’t or won’t do?

    To me, the sentence: “He can not attend tomorrow’s meeting.” seems to need context. The only way I would write ‘can not’ in that sentence is if I were saying: “He can not attend tomorrow’s meeting, or he can; it’s up to him.” I would also italicize the ‘not’ to emphasize my point that he has the option of not attending, or attending.

    When spoken, that same sentence sounds awkward when “can” and “not” are vocalized separately, as though one is being unnecessarily deliberative about his ability to not attend. Spoken normally, the two words will run together and produce the sound of “cannot” anyway. It’s difficult to separate these two words vocally because one ends in a consonant and the other begins with the same consonant (unlike do not, should not, will not, etc.)

    My preference when writing is to use “can” when I mean ‘is able to’ and “cannot” when I mean ‘is not able to’.

    BTW, the Oxford Dictionary of English lists “cannot” as a valid word. It also states that “cannot is far more common in all contexts” and that “The two-word form is advised only in a construction in which not is part of a set phrase, such as ‘not only…but (also)’: Paul can not only sing well, he also paints brilliantly.”
    I would probably say: “Paul not only sings well, he also paints brilliantly.”or “Not only does Paul sing well, he also paints brilliantly.”

  3. Personally I prefer can not. It follows the grammar tendency set up with do not and should not etc. One does not write donot or shouldnot, similarly I don’t think one should write cannot. Either properly contract the two words, or write the TWO words.

    But then again, I’m very conservative when it comes to language.

  4. I cannot complain that I use contractions. It saves typing time & printing ink. It’s how we talk~~in contractions. So, can’t do it the old-fashioned way as I like saving time.

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