1. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cannot

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by spklvr, Feb 7, 2012.

    Because I'm really bad at using the space key, I noticed that cannot didn't get the red line underneath it. Curious as I am, I went and looked up the difference between cannot and can not, and I think I figured it out. "Cannot" means that you really can't do it, it is impossible, while "can not" would imply that you could if you wanted to, but you don't. Like "I cannot build a space ship" vs. "I can not give the dog a bath". I'm not sure btw, I got really confused by all the suggestions and arguments about it on the sites I checked.

    My issue with cannot, however, is that some people are taught that it is the preferred usage, yet I can't remember ever reading that word anywhere. Not even in older literature, and I've been looking out for it for a while now. Do people use cannot these days? And have I understood the difference correctly?
     
  2. topeka sal
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    topeka sal Senior Member

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    Yes, people use cannot. It's pretty common. I think of the difference as one of emphasis and rhythm. "I can not go with you" vs "I cannot go with you": the former sounds more emphatic than the latter. Of course, that depends on context. This is by no means a rule. It also depends on who's speaking and what usage is common to them. For instance, a Scottish person would probably say cannot. My southern-US mother, on the other hand, would favor can not, or can't.
     
  3. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've always considered 'cannot' to mean prevented from doing something (inability or lacking permission), whereas 'can not' means you can [decide] not to do something.

    "I cannot swim" versus "I can not fulfill that request".
     
  4. topeka sal
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    topeka sal Senior Member

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    Oh, Shadow, you may be right. I'm having a sheepish "now that you mention it" moment! :redface:
     
  5. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    A graph showing use of 'cannot' and 'can not' from 1600 to the present. Surprisng, perhaps?

    [​IMG]
     
  6. Enzo03
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    Enzo03 Member

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    I have almost never seen "can not" and never would have expected such a question on "cannot" vs "can not" to arise :)
     
  7. adampjr
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    adampjr Member

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    I've always preferred "can not." Shadowwalker has an interesting theory that I like, but I don't know if it works because "not" is not a verb and wouldn't carry that meaning when used with "can" in my understanding. I believe that they are always interchangeable.
     
  8. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    topeka is right that 'can not' is more emphatic, e.g 'I think I can go now.' 'No, you can not!'
    'cannot' is the usual formal negative, but in informal English, we use 'can't'.
    Word approves of 'cannot' but gives 'can't' a green line because it is geared toward formal, rather academic English for essays etc (that's why it doesn't accept sentence fragments, although I'm blowed why it dislikes passives--you'd have thought it would prefer them for academic writing!)
     
  9. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    There's no difference in meaning, only one of emphasis. See here: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/cannot-or-can-not/

    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.”


    So, I simply cannot understand where the theory came from that 'cannot' means being prevented from doing something, whereas 'can not' implies a conscious decision

    On the other hand, I can not stress enough the importance of knowing when you want to use one over the other, and why ;)
     
  10. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cannot is one word. "Can not", being two words, is therefore open to interpretation based on the combination of 'can' and 'not'.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    kalli has it nailed...
     
  12. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Quite so. For the most part interchangeable but can, certainly, have different meanings.
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It doesn't matter that "not" isn't a verb because "cannot" and "can not" both still need a verb anyway. In formal writing I would never use "can not" because it's ambiguous: it's not clear whether "I can not go" means it is impossible for me to go or it is possible for me not to go (cue philosophical argument about counterfactuals, modal logic, and whether those two interpretations are actually different).
     
  14. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    writing forums...
    I cannot live without them, whereas others can not live with them, eh?
     
  15. SeverinR
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    SeverinR Contributing Member

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    I tend to agree with Kalli,
    quoting a source and explains it well.

    I use Cannot alot, MS word never flags it, but I have had can not flagged many times.
    (In my fantasy world, it is considered improper for non-native inteligent beings(commonly elves and dragons so far) to use English contractions. They believe it is an insult to the language, and also their language does not have them, so they are not comfortable with them. (Although elves that are around humans slip occasionally.)

    I cannot offer anything more and I can not make it any clearer.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i would use 'can not' when i want to emphasize the 'not' part... as in:

    or

    as opposed to perhaps:

    or

    does that help any?
     
  17. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think if the emphasis is made with italics, it works. But reading 'can not' always makes me stumble, quite frankly. Again, I think because of the interpretive aspect. I'm afraid I will always see cannot as can't, 'can not' as 'the choice not to'.

    Interesting discussion of the thing here:

    http://www.english-test.net/forum/ftopic8863.html
     

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