‘can’t, cannot’ or ‘can not’?

(Correct spelling of the negative form of ‘can’ in English)

Table of contents – ‘can’t, cannot, can not’

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Negation of ‘can’
  2. Difference ‘cannot’ and ‘can’t’
  3. Special cases
  4. Further explanations and exercises

How is the negative form of ‘can’ written?

First of all, you have to consider that the verb can together with its negative forms can’t and cannot is a modal verb (other modal verbs are ‘will, would, shall, must’, etc.). Due to this fact, it is subject to special rules and, therefore, does not behave in the same way as other verbs when negated.

Regular negation of verbs

When we look at other verbs or modal verbs, it stands out that the negations (when they are not shortened) always consist of two words. Examples:

  • The auxiliary verbs ‘do, have’, and ‘be’:
    • “The offer does not include free beverages.”
      • Here, the verb ‘do’ (in this case with ‘-es’) is used together with ‘not’.
  • Modal verbs such as ‘will’:
    • “It will not snow tomorrow.”
      • In this example, ‘not’ also appears as a word separated from ‘will’.

How is ‘can’ negated?

However, the situation is different when utilising the verb ‘can’. As an exception – it is the only verb that is negated in such a way – ‘not’ is attached to it directly. Examples:

  • can’ becomes ‘cannot’ in the negative form:
    • “Learning a language cannot be done in four weeks.”
    • “They cannot expect a warm welcome if they are always late.”
    • Not possible: “They can not expect a warm welcome …”

As a consequence, remember that ‘cannot’ is one word. There are very few exceptional cases where it would be correct to write ‘can not’. Especially in text written by English native speakers, ‘can not’ (written with two words) can be found now and then. However, this is a spelling mistake.

Be careful when using ‘could’. Although it is the past tense form of ‘can’, it is not written as one word when it is negated. Compare:

  • “They cannot come to the party.”
    • cannot’ is written as one word in the present tense form.
  • “They could not come to the party.”
    • In the past tense form, ‘could’ has to be written separately from ‘not’.

Difference between ‘cannot’ and ‘can’t’

Even if the question arises from time to time, there is no difference in meaning between the negations ‘can’t’ and ‘cannot’. As a consequence, both forms can always be employed. Please note the hints and the examples:

  • cannot’ is the unabbreviated form and is preferably used in formal language or for particular emphasis:
    • “Unfortunately, we cannot accept your offer.”
      • Such a sentence may be found in a more formal email.
    • “This cannot be true!”
      • Here, the statement is strongly confirmed by the use of the regular (long) form.
  • can’t’, on the other hand, is the short form and usually occurs in spoken conversation and informal texts:
    • Can’t you just help me?”
      • In this example question, a request is being made.
    • “I’m so sorry. I can’t lend you my camera.”
      • This statement could be a chat conversation.
  • Note: The meaning does not differ.

What are the special cases?

There are very few instances in which the negation is written with ‘not’ as a separate word, which means ‘can not’. Such a two-word combination is only the case if ‘not’ does not directly negate the modal verb ‘can’. Compare the details:

  • can not’ only appears separated if ‘not’ belongs to another construction (such as ‘not only’):
    • “Benjamin can not only speak three languages, but he can also translate very well.”
      • In this sentence, ‘not’ is part of the expression ‘not only’ and does not serve to negate ‘can’. Thus, it is written separately.
    • “We can take the chance, or we can not take the chance.”
      • In this example, ‘not’ does not belong to ‘can’ but to ‘take the chance’. For this reason, the words are not written together as one word.
  • Finally, remember: As a principle, the negated form of ‘can’ is combined with ‘not’ and written as one word: cannot. This spelling is accurate in the majority of cases.

Further explanations related to the ‘Negation of ‘can’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Negation of ‘can’ (can’t, cannot, can not) in English’ and may also be interesting: