Friday, April 07, 2006

"Can not" vs. "cannot"

Which is right? "Can not" or "cannot"?

Habit tells me "cannot," but I can't find this peculiar spelling in the index of any of my style guides.

However, Wikipedia gives me this quote, in which I've added the bolding to "cannot":
In this regard, the following quotation from The Chicago Manual of Style deserves notice:
Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.
I haven't thought about this issue in years. I usually work around it by using "can't."

What's your practice?

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4 Comments:

Blogger FatCharlatan said...

I'm a "cannot" girl.

I like this explanation.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I was taught that can not is correct when used for emphasis, as in "You can not be serious!"

Also, the word can't is a contraction formed by shortening the two words can and not.

Can is an auxilary verb, meaning that it needs another verb to make it complete. In the sentence, "I can go with you" the complex verb is "can go." If I were to negate this and say, "I can not go with you" I'm splitting the complex verb with the adverb not. Since can is a verb (auxiliary though it may be) and not is an adverb, they by nature should not be made into one word.

The simplest way to illustrate this point is to look at similar complex verbs. Why are the following not independent verbs as well, if cannot is one word?

couldnot
shouldnot
willnot

For example:

He cannot go and he willnot go because he couldnot get permission.

Why is cannot the exception to the rule?

That said, in general I use cannot, but I often feel guilty about it. It must have been bugging me for years. Didn't think I had that much energy on this topic.

1:23 PM  
Blogger SusanW said...

Thank you for your thoughtful replies!

1:56 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Use "can not" when the opposite is likely to be true:

I can not go to the movies.
(I can go to the movies).

Use "cannot" when the opposite cannot be true :)

I cannot touch the Milky Way.

mjt - author, "Inside Linux"

11:55 AM  

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