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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) #1 (permalink) Sat May 27, 2006 7:35 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Dear All

All the auxiliary verbs are written as two words when they appear with not, i.e should not, may not, ought not etc. Why is CANNOT written as one word? Again its past is two words, COULD NOT.

Thanks in advance

Tom
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #2 (permalink) Sat May 27, 2006 7:47 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Hi Tom

I blame this on the British. :lol:

Seriously, though, it's probably better not to ask and simply accept that that's just the way it is. I'm not sure even Alan will be able to explain the logic of "cannot" as a single word.

Amy
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Can not #3 (permalink) Sat May 27, 2006 8:25 am   Can not
 

Hi Tom,

You can write this as two words: can not and that's something you can't/cannot do with the other modals. As Amy has issued the challenge, I'll have a go at the logic? As you know, English lends itself/adapts iteslf well to the lazy speaker and it's much easier to say: can't/ won't/mustn't/oughtn't/mayn't/coudn't etc than to give them the full value as: will not/must not and so on. But it so happens that the modal can ends in an 'n' and that makes it uniique and what more natural than to put the two n's together and make it cannot just to show that you know the full form and you are not using the abbreviation. Now, you cannot/can not/ can't argue with that, can you?

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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #4 (permalink) Sat May 27, 2006 8:57 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Thank you a lot, Alan.

To sum up, can I treat it as two words "CAN NOT"?

Tom
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #5 (permalink) Sat May 27, 2006 9:07 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Hi Alan

Thanks for your explanation! That seems quite plausible to me. :D

Hi Tom

You should write "cannot" in most cases. My advice would be to reserve "can not" (2 words) for emphatic situations.

Amy
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #6 (permalink) Sat May 27, 2006 15:00 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

I see a distinction:

You can't follow orders.
You cannot follow orders.

= You are not able to follow orders.

If you add the word always to these sentences, you get:

You cannot always follow orders.
You can't always follow orders.

= It is not always possible to follow orders.

It is also possible to say:

You can not follow orders.
= You can ignore or disobey orders. You can listen to the order and not follow it.

If you add always to that sentence, you get:

You can always not follow orders.
= It is always possible for you not to follow orders.

The distinction is between [can't] follow or [cannnot] follow and can [not follow]. The last one may be a bit colloquial, but we do say it.
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Cannot is one word! #7 (permalink) Sat Jan 24, 2009 20:40 pm   Cannot is one word!
 

Cannot and "can not" are two different words. Cannot is the negative of can; "cannot" is the rarely used emphatic form of "can". The two are not interchangeable.

Some dictionaries defines 'cannot" as "can not", but that's just to show the meaning of "cannot" is "can"+"not". The correct spelling of "cannot" is "cannot".
Why? No apparent reason. It is just one of those quirky things in English.

Yes, there are people who misspell "cannot" as "can not". I read somewhere that software engineers are most prone to doing so. I came across 4 such misspellings in the last few years, three of which were in software packages: linksys router, QPP World War II game, and a stockbroker's on-line trading program.

Some people claim that perhaps "cannot" is only spelled as "cannot" recently. I checked. No sir. Cannot has always been spelled as cannot. (I am re-reading the old classic 'Treasure Island', and lo-and-behold, it is "cannot" and not "can not")

The overwhelming majority of people spelling "cannot" as "can not" is in China. Apparently the largest tutorial school there, by the name of New Oriental Schools (Oriental???) uses "can not" in several of their "must-commit-to-memory-standard-sample-essays ", as well as some of their "supplementary notes" for students.

The following (next message) is a complaint by an editor on the misleading way dictionaries define "cannot."
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From: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000876.php #8 (permalink) Sun Jan 25, 2009 23:56 pm   From: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000876.php
 

CANNOT.
Moorishgirl links to a review by David Kipen of the new 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which we've recently gotten at work. It's not bad for a newspaper review—it points out that "dictionaries are snapshots from life, not idealized friezes" and makes the useful observation that few of the periodicals combed by lexicographers for usage "are edited west of the Mississippi, or even the Hudson"—but I'm mainly using it as a pretext to talk about a dictionary problem that came to light at work. A fellow editor discovered that somebody had inserted a space into cannot, and wanting to back up his insistence that it had to be one word, he turned to his brand-new Webster's. Imagine his horror, and mine when I saw it, at finding that the definition for the word was "can not."

This is appalling for two quite distinct reasons: from a copy-editing point of view because it implies that cannot and can not are interchangeable, and from a lexicographical point of view because it's a lousy definition. The definition of cannot should be either "the negative form of can" (as the AHD has it) or a periphrasis like "is not able to." 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)." The only acceptable form for the unabbreviated negative of can (or, if you prefer, for the expansion of can't) is cannot, one word. People are always trying to put a space in there, and we poor overworked editors need some backup; help us out, Webster's!

For those who may be thinking "But aren't you one of those anything-goes descriptivists?": sure, when it comes to speech, and written forms that accurately reflect a chosen form of speech. If ain't is part of your natural vocabulary, you should say and write it fearlessly, and you have my full support. But this is different. Nobody says can not (two distinct spoken words) except in the rare context I mentioned above; the negative of can is pronounced as one word, k@NOT or KAnot, and therefore it is a crime against accurate representation of spoken English as well as against the rules of written style to write can not.
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Here is another, from grammarmudge #9 (permalink) Sun Jan 25, 2009 23:58 pm   Here is another, from grammarmudge
 

http://www.grammarmudge.cityslide.com/articles/article/992333/70102.htm
Cannot
Cannot, in the sense of "am unable to" or "am not permitted to" is written as one word. Whenever we use the contraction can't, we are contracting the one word cannot.

Thus, for example, if I want to express the idea that I am unable to work here or I am not permitted to work here, I must write, "I cannot work here."

The only instance in which "I can not [two words] work here" would be correct is this: I have a choice between working here and not working here. In other words, I can work here or I can not work here. In this case, not negates work; in cannot, not negates can. The latter is what we usually mean when we say we cannot (can't) do something.

Strange as it may sound, "I can not work here" means "I am able to not work here," whereas "I cannot work here" means "I am unable / not able / not permitted to work here."
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cannot vs. can not #10 (permalink) Mon Apr 20, 2009 6:34 am   cannot vs. can not
 

Hi everybody,
Which one is the correct negative form of "can"?
can not or cannot ?! :roll:
Thanks,
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #11 (permalink) Mon Apr 20, 2009 7:13 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

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Hi Morteza,
'
Convention requires the two forms - 'cannot' and 'can't'. The only time where you could possibly write 'can not' is when you wanted to put a particular emphasis on the negative as in: I really can not understand what you are saying. This of course would be exceptional.

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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #12 (permalink) Mon Apr 20, 2009 19:02 pm   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Hi Dear Alan,
I really thank you for your kind and useful answer.
Best regards,
Morteza
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Grammar is all about logic #13 (permalink) Tue Jan 05, 2010 0:28 am   Grammar is all about logic
 

The point of grammar is to make sense, and making "cannot vs. can not" an either-or situation ignores the logic of the words themselves. They mean different things.

Cannot means it cannot happen at all. There isn't a "can" option to contrast to it. I cannot go back in time, for example. The reason we don't have an equivalent "shouldnot" or "mightnot" is because the essence of should and might doesn't lend itself to this option. Can, though, readily implies its absolute opposite.

Can not means it might happen; it can happen, or it can not happen. I can not post this comment if I choose. If you might not do a thing, then you can choose not to do it. So a person can say, with perfect consistency, "I can not do that, therefore I might not do that."

The very fact there is such a debate over this should be taken as a symptom that there's a problem with the either-or scenario. It simply doesn't make sense to restrict the language artificially, in order to force an illogical rule (whichever rule you learned). If it doesn't make sense, it's not good grammar.

A whimsical essay on the subject: http://alexfiles.com/cannot.shtml
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Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not) #14 (permalink) Tue Jan 05, 2010 1:41 am   Cannot: Why one word? (can't vs. cannot vs. can not)
 

Well if you really want to get down to the details, neither cannot nor can't actually exist in the realm of grammar expressing meaning. This type of modal doesn't have a true negative. The 'not' actually belongs to the following content verb phrase.
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Modal verbs question #15 (permalink) Tue Jan 05, 2010 19:06 pm   Modal verbs question
 

Oxfordblues writes: "neither cannot nor can't actually exist in the realm of grammar expressing meaning."

Can it not be both ways? It's been a very long time since I discussed verbs as modal creatures (early '80s), but I think the point is that one version is purely negative (cannot), one is not (can not). From that perspective, your argument supports the can not version, at least as I understand it.

Trying to speak in your terms, perhaps one can be viewed as having epistemic modality, and one as ambiguous modality? Cannot would be epistemic, because it's a requirement that the thing in question be impossible. Can not would be ambiguous, because it might be the case or it might not.

I'm open to being educated on modality, so if I'm way off base, please correct me!
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