Cannot vs. can not

There is a grammatical misunderstanding common to many U.S. Americans, largely because we learned about grammar in the either/or terms of right vs. wrong. Here’s the misunderstanding: can not or cannot? My public school teachers said can not was the correct form, and that cannot was a corruption. A friend of mine from a previous generation was taught the opposite. Her son, much better at using the language than either of us, said both were right, but usage depended on context.

Here’s the explanation: If I can not do something, then I can also do it. I can not write these words if I choose (and you may think I shouldn’t), but I also can, and am, writing them. What I cannot do is know who will read them, or what they will think. I can imagine such things, but I’m limited by my experience and perceptions. So this is the rule: if you either could or could not do something, then you use two words, because you can leave out the second word if you so choose. If you could not do something no matter how much you desired or tried, then you use one word, cannot. There is no other option.

Sometimes both are true. Witness:

I cannot change the world.

I can not change the world.

It’s true, I cannot change the world. What I mean, and what many mean when they say or think this to themselves, is that the world’s problems are too big for any one person, or group of people, to take on. Poverty, sickness, hatred, love, weather, earthquakes, political and religious differences—these are inevitable conditions. Even Jesus said, “the poor you will have with you always,” and, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

It’s also true that I can change the world. I, and every other person on the planet, can make a difference. We can give to the poor, and try to cure ourselves of the sickness of wealth (more on that later). We can be courteous, we can provide emotional (listening) or physical (assisting) or financial (donating) help to others, we can feed and help and forgive each other. (More about forgiveness later, too.) We can take in an abandoned dog or cat and give it love. We can plant a garden. We can put in a day’s work and know we earned our pay, and someone, hopefully, was the better for it. We can not cut off someone in traffic. We can dedicate our lives to healing. We can dedicate our lives to loving our family and community. We can respect the differences of others. In other words, what we can do, we can do.

Grammar is the tool we use to communicate and should be taught as such. Our bodies, our minds, and our voices are the tools we have to interact with our universe. We must use them while we live; we cannot evade using them except through death or dire injury. In this sense we cannot not change the world. And now, while the world suffers on every level, from the sky to the deeps of the sea, from humans to tiny coral polyps, we can make what time we have count.

Don’t berate yourself for previous behavior. Don’t congratulate yourself, either. Just take the next opportunity to make a difference to the next person, and help make what we cannot change bearable.

29 December, 2003

Further discussion

6 January, 2009

Occasionally I get emails from people in response to this, ranging from pleased thanks to detailed explanations of why the option cannot be other than “can not” or “cannot.” Recently one of these linked to, a site dedicated to improving English skills.

I dipped into the site and found a message board with varying perspectives, and replied, signing up as “Logical.” The discussion was fruitful (among other things, I got a nice refresh on modals). Below are some arguments against using both forms in different contexts, along with my response, drawn from this discussion and email exchanges. (Read the English-Test discussion in full.)

  • The two forms mean the same thing, so we should just pick one and use it.

    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 are two different forms, and therefore necessarily 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.

  • The scope of the negation is the same in both, because “not” or “-not” belong to the following verb phrase

    Thanks to OxfordBlues on English-Test.Net, because this argument forced me to think things through more deeply.

    The idea is that “can” is apart from the “not _____” portion of the statement, whether in “cannot” or “can not” form. 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 from “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.

    OxfordBlues suggested using a version of “be + able” to evaluate the difference in forms. To me, this made sense with “cannot” but not with “can not”, which demonstrated my point:

    David cannot drive. (David lacks the skill set for driving.)

    David is not able to drive. (This accurately describes David’s state.)

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

    Applying “will” options looks like this:

    David will not be able to drive. (Perfectly accurate.)
    Caroline will not be able to drive. (This doesn’t accurately describe Caroline’s state, since she might very well be able to, but choose not to do so.)
    Caroline will not drive. (This only works if it has been decided Caroline will not drive.)

    After much discussion, Bart (my husband, a much more accomplished scholar than I am) suggested the following sentence, which I submitted to English-Test.Net for feedback:

    I cannot not pay my rent and live in my home.

    Alan, the charming co-founder of the site, responded, “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.”

  • Separating out the not from the word is merely an emphatic form with the same meaning.

    There are two arguments against this:

    • Emphasis is, for the most part, not written down, apart from the occasional bold-faced or italicized rich text formatting, or in eye-dialect. There’s nothing to stop emphasis from being added to either form by a reader or speaker. Interpretation of emphasis is dependent on context and the individual reader or speaker.
    • This is not a rule used in other verbs that I can discover, but a rationalization springing from lack of understanding. For example, the emphatic nature of the sentence, “I will not do that” depends on what is being refused. “I will not take the bus” is quite different from, “I will not murder.” The sentence stands well enough on its own, which is probably why we’ve never developed the form, “I willnot do that.”