Can not vs cannot

Subject: Can not vs cannot
From: Richard Mateosian <srm -at- C2 -dot- ORG>
Date: Wed, 12 Apr 1995 11:15:28 -0700

Recently I cited my high school teacher's dictum that "can not" does not
appear in correct english. Of course, I should have said "can not" as a
synonym for "is/are/am unable" does not appear in correct english.

Several folks have proposed counterexamples:

>"You can run and you can hide, but you can not escape me."

The idea is to emphasize the parallel with "can run" and "can hide." I think
most people would use can't or cannot here. I certainly would.

>"The restaurant can not only serve a delectable lasagna, but also
>[can] bake [not bakes] a sinful chocolate cake."

This isn't an instance of using the phrase "can not." The word "can" is
followed not by a verb but by a selection of verbs in the "not only...but
also" format.

>"I can drink, or I can not drink."

This is not an instance of the phrase "can not" meaning "is/am/are unable."
It is "can" followed by "not drink" used as a clumsy synonym for "abstain."

>It looks ugly to italicize only the not part of cannot.

I don't think it looks much uglier than any other typographical device for
indicating the intended sound of the words. But why not italicize the whole
thing? That would sound more natural to most people.

So I stand by my high school teacher's dictum. ...RM

Richard Mateosian Technical Writer in Berkeley CA srm -at- c2 -dot- org


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