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Cannot / can NOT

Posted by R. Berg on May 24, 2003

In Reply to: Cannot / can NOT posted by Henry on May 24, 2003

: : : : : : : I've learned a lot on the Internet about the difference between "cannot" and "can not", but it is hard for me to find "authorized" dictionaries, or other "well-known" grammar/usage books which give the details or definitions of the usage, distinction etc. Would you please offer me some links on the web?

: : : : : : : Thank you.

: : : : : : The Associated Press Stylebook lists "cannot."

: : : : : The Guardian newspaper has an on-line style guide. It doesn't have cannot as an entry, but uses it in two other entries, so it appears to support the use of cannot.

: : : : : stalemate - Do not use to mean deadlock or impasse: a stalemate is the end of the game, and cannot be broken or resolved
: : : : : impracticable - impossible; it cannot be done

: : : : "Cannot" is aways acceptable. "Can not" is almost always wrong, except in a case where one wants to draw very strong attention to the negative. Typically this might happen in dialogue, where capitals might also be used to add further emphasis.

: : : : "No, you can NOT use my Lalique crystal bowl as a footbath!"

: : : : (Yes, yes, before the purists swoop down, I know it should really be "may not", but this is dialogue, and people don't speak that pickily.)

: : : : I can't off-hand think of another example where "can not" might be used correctly.

: : : Surprise! This purist has something different to say. "No, you CANNOT use my . . ." would be the correct way to forbid somebody to use your bowl as a bath. The only legitimate use of "can not" I know of is this kind: "I can't make up my mind. I can go to the fair tomorrow, or I can not go." It's awkward but correct.

: : That's a very good legitimate example, and undeniably correct, though now I wonder how you'd have spelled "can not" if the final fractionally superfluous "go" was omitted from the sentence - in the same 2 word fashion, I imagine, because the negative infinitive "to not go" is implied.

: : I have to defend my own example, though. It's almost a question of stress and how the line should be read aloud.

: : a) "No, you can NOT use my Lalique crystal bowl as a footbath!"

: : b) "No, you CANNOT use my Lalique crystal bowl as a footbath!"

: : To view it in metric terms, which is the only way I can make the case, in example a), "can NOT" is clearly an iamb, with the stress on the 2nd syllable, whereas in example b), "CANNOT" is obviously a spondee, with both syllables stressed. My feeling is that both ways of delivering the line of dialogue are equally valid though different, and thus that both spellings are allowable.

: I think that John McEnroe used to shout, "You can NOT be serious!" We, however, must tolerate differing views and cannot be so inconsiderate. Wimbledon will be here soon!

I always think of "cannot" as an iamb, whether it's emphasized or not. It doesn't turn into a spondee for me even when stressed, nor does the visual version separate into two words. So I write "No, you CANNOT use . . ." and think (auditorily) "NO-you-can-NOT-use." But the Amer. Heritage Dict. gives two pronunciations, iamb and trochee. Perhaps British speakers use the trochaic form?