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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)


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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #16 (permalink) Tue Jan 05, 2010 19:42 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

You're thinking in the right direction, but it's not quite that complex. Modality works like negation in that it's purely left to right:

I will be at work tomorrow.
I will not be at work tomorrow.

In reading these two sentences, it would be easy to assume that they are opposites of each other, but they are not. The first one states a future (by volition) in which the speaker is present at work the following day. The opposite of being present is not being present -- that part works. But, what's the opposite of the future? It would have to be some sort of anti-future -- and idea that is both grammatically and realistically impossible. Will when used to express future is not capable of accepting negation.

The possibility does exist to express negative volition, another use of will. The form used for that is the modal be+willing so that I am willing to go and I am not willing to go are opposites of each other.

The way these two sentences actually read are:

I will be at work tomorrow.
I will not be at work tomorrow.

Because the not belongs to the subordinated verb phrase, this means that the negative contraction won't actually clouds the true operation of the sentence.

The same is true for cannot and can't because the not actually belongs to the subordinated phrase (that which the subject is capable of).

I can speak English.
I can not speak English.
I can not speak English.
I can't speak English.

The idea that someone can 'not do something' seems strange, but it's the way that type of modal operates. The modal be+able can be negated and this is the form that is equivalent in meaning to can but can express the opposite of ability:

I am able to speak English.
I am not able to speak English.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #17 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 1:10 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Great post! Thanks for the detailed response :-)

While your description of how modality works is very helpful, I don't get how it affects the "cannot vs. can not" debate. It still seems to me that different forms have different meanings.

You write, "The same is true for cannot and can't because the not actually belongs to the subordinated phrase (that which the subject is capable of)." But it seems to me that if "not" is a syllable within the word, rather than a word following it, then it clearly belongs to the word itself, not to a subordinated phrase. This implies "cannot" bears a different meaning than "can not." The ability of "can" in "can not" to exist without the word "not" implies there is an alternative state to not being able to do a thing, just as the permanency of "-not" in "cannot" implies no alternative.

The idea that someone can not do something clearly doesn't seem strange to me, since I support it as a valid form ;-) For me, your "be+able" example makes sense with "cannot" but not with "can not," which demonstrates my point:

David cannot drive. (David lacks the skill set for driving.)
David is not able to drive. (This accurately describes David's state.)

Carol can not drive. (Carol could drive, but can choose to let someone else do it, or to walk instead.)
Carol is not able to drive. (This doesn't accurately describe Carol's state.)

Applying "will" options looks like this:
David will not be able to drive. (Perfectly accurate.)
Carol will not be able to drive. (This doesn't accurately describe Carol's state, since she might very well be able to, but choose not to do so.)
Carol will not drive. (This only works if it has been decided Carol will not drive.)
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #18 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 1:37 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

I'm not sure I agree with your analysis of the meaning of the various examples you've given.

Just because -not is attached to can in cannot and n't is part of can't doesn't affect the meaning. Contractions (cannot is also a type of contraction) are merely combinations of sounds and letters, not combinations of meaning. So while the not is attached to the can, it's still a separate, independent morpheme. That makes the bit you've placed in boldface incorrect (although I have seen this argument in grammar books before).

It's definitely something that can be confusing. The best rule I have been able to come up with for my students is to take the words at their meaning only, rather than trying to find an implied meaning that lies beyond those words.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #19 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 3:24 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Logical, perhaps your analysis would be easier to communicate if you were able do do it face to face, in sound; for I believe that you are talking about the difference between (regular) unaccented "not" in "cannot" and (emphasized) accented "not" in "can not". I am not saying that it is spelling that matters; just that, if you add stress to "not", its scope changes.

Oxford: if I read you correctly, you say that "not" in "I cannot hear you" has under its scope only "hear you", not "can"; and that "can" has under its scope "not". In addition, you appear to be saying that "I cannot hear you" and "I am not able to hear you" do not have the same (approximate) meaning. What you say perplexes me: surely this cannot be true? Did I miss some essential clue?

The easiest way to make scope visible is by recasting the sentence into subordinate clauses:

1. Do you agree on the following:

a. - I cannot hear you =~ the situation is not so that it is possible that I hear you.
I have pulled apart three aspects of this sentence: negation, possibility, and non-modal content (this "possibility" should actually be "ability", but the difference doesn't matter here, and this is much easier). It would not be right if I pulled it apart differently:
b. - (I cannot hear you =/ it is possible that the situation is not so that I hear you.)

From this it follows that "can" falls under the scope of "not" (a), not the other way around (b).

Quote:
The same is true for cannot and can't because the not actually belongs to the subordinated phrase

Unless I somehow completely misunderstood you, what you were saying contradicts (1).

2. On a side note, I believe you agree that there is no inherent difference in scope between "can't" and "cannot".

3. If I had to pronounce "I can not hear you", I would pronounce it with sentence accent on "not", because of a.) italicization and b.) the space between "can" and "not". Now this "not" can be accented in a very emphatic command (though not in the first person), in which case there would be no space; but I am not talking about a command: it is meant to be a plain statement here.
a. - I can not hear you =~ it is possible that it is not so that I hear you.
Do you agree that the scope of "not" changes if the word changes from unaccented to accented? Incidentally, I'd consider this accent on "not" informal; I'd rather use "may not" for this:
b. - The shop may not be open =~ it is possible that it is not so that the shop is open =~ the shop may be closed.
I changed the example in order to avoid confusion with the sense of permission that "may" often has.

Perhaps it is this difference in scope that Logical was pointing out.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #20 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 3:51 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Try treating the words as components and read them like an algebraic equation:

I -> can -> not -> hear -> you.

I can (not (hear you) ).

Subject [I] modal ability [can] subordinated phrase (that which the subject is capable of) [not hear you]

inside of [not hear you] you have negation [not] of verb phrase [hear you] with you being the object of that phrase (what is heard).

can subordinates the entire phrase to its right, then within that phrase, not subordinates everything to its right.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #21 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 5:30 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Oxford, I understand what you're saying, but I respectfully disagree. You imply the following:
- I cannot hear you =~ it is possible that it is untrue that I hear you.
If someone asked you "can you hear me?", you would have to answer, if you stuck to the above: "I don't know; it is possible that I don't hear you, but it is not impossible that I do hear you."

I do not believe that the scope of a negation is always (restricted to) what follows it; neither is the scope of such words as only, or of verbs that allow for "raising": they are sometimes at illogical places in a sentence, owing to idiom.
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Cerberus & Oxfordblues - #22 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 6:13 am   Cerberus & Oxfordblues -
 

First, I'd like to thank you both - it's a pleasure to watch clear thinkers argue their points :-) I doubt we'll resolve this, but I'm thoroughly enjoying the process.

I'm curious as to how you two would analyze this sentence: "I cannot not pay my rent and live in my home."

thanks!

P.S. Cerberus, I'm not talking about the accent as the difference, I'm talking about the meaning the forms imply. I can see how you thought that, though - I shouldn't have italicized that "not" in my example.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #23 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 9:39 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

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Hi,

I think you've burst the bubble here with
Quote:
I cannot not pay my rent and live in my home.
This to me suggests that non-payment of the rent is an impossibility for me. Surely in that case 'can' and 'not' are joined at the hip.

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Cerberus & Oxfordblues - #24 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 14:08 pm   Cerberus & Oxfordblues -
 

Logical wrote:
I'm curious as to how you two would analyze this sentence: "I cannot not pay my rent and live in my home."

I agree with Alan: "I cannot live in my home unless I pay my rent."
As regards scope, I'd analyse your sentence thus:
It is not true that it is possible that I both not pay my rent and live in my house.
I haven't split off the negation from "pay my rent" because this paraphrase would then have become unreadable.
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Cerberus & Oxfordblues - #25 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 14:10 pm   Cerberus & Oxfordblues -
 

Logical, if you meant to argue that "cannot" and "can't" differ in the scope of their negations, then I still disagree; if however you meant that "cannot" and "can not" imply a difference in the scope of their negations, I see your point.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #26 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 14:17 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Oxford, here is a link to a scientific article that will, I hope, corroborate my assertion:
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&safe=off&q=%22an+instance+of+narrow+scope+negation%22&btnG=Search&filter-edit-area=&aq=f&oq=%22unambiguously+an+instance+of+wide+scope%22&aqi=
I provided a Google link because the article can be found in Google Books. My point is supported by example 120a and its interpretation, both on page 110; the Google result should be sending you directly to the right page.

Logical, example 120b may or may not be arguing your point - I think not, because it points to accentuation as well.
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #27 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 15:52 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Actually I am leaning toward the idea that cannot (in the case of the paying rent sentence) is inseparable as well.

This could be an example of meaning overriding structure. Modals are constantly evolving (they're actually considered pretty new in English) and it could be that can / cannot have moved out of the class of will/would, shall/should, must, might, etc. and into a new subclass in which negation is possible.

This is why its always fun to discuss such things ;)
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Cerberus & Oxfordblues - #28 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 18:09 pm   Cerberus & Oxfordblues -
 

Cerberus™ wrote:
Logical, if you meant to argue that "cannot" and "can't" differ in the scope of their negations, then I still disagree; if however you meant that "cannot" and "can not" imply a difference in the scope of their negations, I see your point.


Glad you see the point, even if you may not agree :-) It's possible you're confusing my comments with other people's - I think it's clear from my posts that it's the difference between "can not" and "cannot." I don't think I even mention "can't."

My original essay on the subject: http://alexfiles.com/cannot.shtml
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #29 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 18:12 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Cool! I've learned a lot about modals, so thank you :-)

I clicked on your blog link, but it only took me to the main Wordpress home. Is there a better link?
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #30 (permalink) Wed Jan 06, 2010 18:54 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Thanks for checking it out Logical,

Sorry I just realised I put the wrong address in. It should be:

http://calleteach.wordpress.com
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