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.
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?
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.