In one of the language seminars I attended recently, some grammar nerds (including me) started to talk about cannot, can not and can’t. The discussion ended soon after one confidently declared how can’t is the contraction for can not, and cannot is simply a corruption. Well, for me this was only the start of a big discussion, and also a good topic for my next blog, I thought.
First thing first, every word has a meaning, a reason for its existence. So, why treat cannot as corruption? Cannot and can not are two different words (or forms) and have different meanings. Cannot means that there is no possibility of something happening. For example, I cannot reach home on time today (meaning under no circumstances can I reach home on time today, I’m sure). Thus, when we use cannot, there is no possibility of ‘can’. However, can not means that something can happen if you want it to happen. Look at this example, Because Chris doesn’t enjoy drinks, he can choose not to attend the party. So, this sentence means that Chris can not attend the party, but he can also attend it (if he wants). He’s making a choice to not attend it. I hope I make sense here.
Look at this now.
I can not write this post (but I am writing because I want to). I cannot know who will read this post and how others will feel after reading this post (because this is beyond my control). I think I’ve done a decent job with this example and made the difference clearer. 🙂
What is the rule of thumb then?
You use two words when you think there is a possibility (and you can get rid of the second word – not – if you want to). You use one word when you know there is no possibility no matter how hard you try or desire.
Other way of looking at this theory is that you use two words when you want to emphasise the ‘not’ part. For example, I want a holiday now, but I probably can not do it this year.
So, cannot and can not are not interchangeable. And can not is not a new word. You can find references to can not in Shakespeare’s works like the famous Hamlet.
So, read your sentence next time and ensure you use the correct form!