The Changing Language of ‘Not’

Linked from the LOLBRARY.

Sometimes, we writers enter our respective, fictional worlds and don’t look back. Some would even say we cannot. Or is that can not? Wait, or is that can’t?

When did something so simple become so complicated?

I learned the proper way to write that you couldn’t do something was with the term “can not” (two words). Or, you could use the contradiction “can’t”.

Apparently, that has gone out the window and the common usage now is “cannot” (one word). When that battle occurred, I don’t know, but it has come to my attention because several critiquers have pointed it out to me. Since these folks were from across the pond, I assumed it was a U.K. thing and quietly ignored them. Until yesterday.

I was going through the story notes from two different readers. I noticed that the older critiquer (my age) did not mention my use of “can not” as an error, while the younger person did.

Fine, I thought, I better go look it up.


Both Grammar Girl and Daily Writing Tips write that “cannot” is the word to use.

Whew. Okay, so it has changed. I can handle that. All I need to do is a global change on my WiPs, replacing “can not” with “cannot”.

But wait! The intrepid reader that I am, I scrolled down to read the comments on each post referenced above. I noticed an interesting development. It appears that the two terms have some new, developing nuanced meaning.


In my dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Third Edition, 1996 – dang, better get a new one), the meaning is presented like this:

cannot (kan’nät’, kan’ät’; stressed, kan’nät’; rapidly, kan’ət, kə nät’): can not – cannot but have no choice but to; must.

That’s it. As far as I can tell, the dictionary is saying that cannot is the same as can not, and the meaning implies there is no choice in the matter. I cannot breathe under water any more than a fish can live out of water.

But I can choose to swim in water or not. So, might there be a case when I might say or write some variation of cannot and mean two different things?

Can not

My dictionary is no help with “can not”. And my grammar book, Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman (2004, should probably update this, too), doesn’t mention it. Nor does my copy of Essentials of English by Hopper, Gale, Foote and Griffith (Fifth Edition, 2000). So, I’m left with the internet.

The Oxford Dictionary online edition says this:

Both the one-word form cannot and the two-word form can not are acceptable, but cannot is more common (in the Oxford English Corpus, three times as common). The two-word form is better only in a construction in which not is part of a set phrase, such as ‘not only … but (also)’: Paul can not only sing well, he also paints brilliantly.

Okay, that seems clear. More or less. But there still might be other cases for “can not”. At this site, the author takes this under considerable consideration, and offers this example:

I cannot change the world.

I can not change the world.

The idea is that the two sentences say very different things. The first implies the speaker is not able to change the world (hey, maybe they are comatose), while the latter implies the speaker chooses not to change the world (hey, maybe they’re materialistic Americans – joke!).

Anyway, it seems there is a case to use one or the other. (sigh) Now, I’ll have to go through and find all my uses of “can not” and make sure that’s what I actually mean.

You’ve been warned.

Until next time, write as if there are no Grammar Nazis in the world.


12 thoughts on “The Changing Language of ‘Not’

  1. This is exactly why I tend toward descriptivism. I don’t know if I’ve every actually used the formulation “can not” personally, but to me it is obvious that there is a subtle (and perhaps overlapping) difference in meaning between “cannot” and “can not”. I hate it when someone decrees a rule that closes off nuance, because I need all the tools I can get my hands on when I’m writing (for instance, I have been told to replace “she said tiredly” with “she said, tired” to avoid the dreaded adverb, but those mean completely different things to me).

    1. I agree that those two phrases say different things. But does it matter? I mean, to the story? If not, then I would just cut everything out, but if it does matter, then write it like you mean it.

      The thing with ‘cannot’ is that I was unaware I was saying one thing versus another. Or I had the potential to confuse.

  2. Grammar is a bit of kryptonite for me. Enjoyed learning about this. I think I’ve tended toward cannot, but I cannot say for sure.

    As a side note, words start to look funny after repeatedly seeing them. By the end of your article, I begin to think of a ‘cannot’ as some sort italian dessert or a tiny boat.

  3. An interesting analysis of the changing use of language. I am from the UK and just over 50 and I can recall being taught in the early 1970s that ‘can not’ was the only correct use (presumably cannot was seen as a modern corruption). However, by the time I was in secondary school in the late 1970s cannot was generally accepted as correct, except for perhaps more formal writing, like a physics essay.

    Much more recently, I have relaxed my writing style for my blog and replaced my well used formal business letter style with a more conversational style, where can’t is the now usual. I noticed that you also have a similar style and used couldn’t in the 3rd sentence of this article. I think that is right for a blog or other informal use, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in a story, except for speech by a character or perhaps a narrator. The tone of your last line was right though, everyone should be free to write how they like, it is up to the reader if they like it or accept it.

    1. Agreed.

      I think the main thing to keep in mind is that we want to be clear, and not state things we hadn’t meant.

      It is interesting that you think contractions are ‘informal’. I’m not under that impression. As a matter of fact, if I find someone specifically not using them, I kind of have the impression that they are stuffy, so to speak. I think that may be an American thing.

  4. I love grammar!
    English is not my native language , and I would like to know more about its subtleties and correct forms ! So , I was very interested in your post!

Get it out of your system

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s