Cannot vs Can Not
April 10, 2004 2:04 PM   Subscribe

"Can not" vs. "cannot": intuitively, the former seems to mean "one is permitted to not" while the latter means "not allowed to". But I've seen both used both ways. So what's the correct usage?
posted by casarkos to Writing & Language (10 answers total)
Cannot is the correct form in almost all cases. The only (very rare) exception is in sentences like "You can do it, or you can not do it"—in other words, where the two words have their separate meanings ('are able not to'). In the normal sense ('not able to'), it is always one word. Anyone who tells you different is trying to get you red-penciled.
posted by languagehat at 2:16 PM on April 10, 2004

It's strange, because in elementary school I always used "can not" - that's what I learned was the long form of "can't". It's only in recent years that I've been using cannot at all, and that was mostly because Word kept telling me "can not" was wrong.
posted by aclevername at 2:45 PM on April 10, 2004

This maynot make much sense.
posted by vacapinta at 3:24 PM on April 10, 2004

I'd recommend The Kings English : A Guide to Modern Usage for more fun with usage.
posted by the fire you left me at 3:53 PM on April 10, 2004

For fun, yes. For actual information (from people who know what they're talking about), get Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. I can't recommend this book highly enough; they tell you what has been considered "correct" usage at one time or another, but they also give you the historical facts of usage so you can make up your own mind about how you want to use what is (not to put too fine a point on it) your own fucking language. Don't let the prescriptivists scare you!
posted by languagehat at 5:52 PM on April 10, 2004

This site is also pretty helpful in these matters.
posted by Gyan at 6:16 PM on April 10, 2004

In some matters, but not in this one:

These two spellings are largely interchangeable, but by far the most common is "cannot"; and you should probably use it except when you want to be emphatic: "No, you can not wash the dog in the Maytag."

Wrong. That sentence would be "No, you cannot wash the dog in the Maytag," unless what was meant was "You have the capability of not washing the dog in the Maytag." The guy who runs the site has good instincts, but his background is in comp lit, so he has no real standing to be making these decisions.

He's good on non-errors, though.
posted by languagehat at 6:16 AM on April 11, 2004

Can you really (properly) italicize half a word, languagehat? Seems a bit odd.
posted by rushmc at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2004

Well, you wouldn't want to do it in formal prose, but then you wouldn't be using a construction like that in formal prose. When representing spoken sentences in written English, you make as few compromises as possible with "the rules" while conveying the desired information; here, having half a word italicized is a small infraction compared with misspelling the word "cannot." (Suppose you wanted to say "I was spelling it, not misspelling it," and wanted to emphasize the "mis-" as you would in speech; you wouldn't make it a separate word, right?)
posted by languagehat at 11:51 AM on April 11, 2004

Hmm...good point. I guess subjectively it seems more acceptable somehow at the beginning of a word, as in your second example, than in the middle or at the end.
posted by rushmc at 9:40 AM on April 12, 2004

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