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Cannot / can NOT

Posted by TheFallen on May 25, 2003

In Reply to: Cannot / can NOT posted by Henry on May 25, 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?

: : : Interesting point. Maybe it is another one of those pesky transatlantic differences. I believe that the natural UK pronunciation of "cannot" is trochaic, which is why over here we'd certainly transliterate the famous John McEnroe quotation mentioned above - kudos to Henry for this excellent example - as "You can NOT be serious, man!" This would be done to capture the emphasis of the dialogue as spoken, which the trochaic "cannot" would not achieve.

: : Yes, probably a transatlantic difference.
: : To answer a question above that I missed earlier, how I would have spelled "can not" if "go" had been omitted: The same way, as two words, because "or I cannot" would have a different meaning, viz., "I can't."

: John McEnroe published his autobiography in June last year, and called it "You Cannot Be Serious". Game, set and match to cannot!

... ahhh but you make my case for me. He's an American and therefore iamb-fixated.