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Cannot or can not

Whether to use the word cannot or can not may be confusing. In some cases the two terms are interchangeable, in other cases they are not. We’ll look at the meanings of these words, when they are used, their origins and some examples of their use in sentences.

Cannot means an inability to do something, the denial of permission to do something, an incapacity to do or attain something. Cannot is an auxiliary verb and one of the one thousand most frequently used words in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word cannot has been around since around 1400 and is used far more often than the term can not.


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Can not may also mean an inability to do something, the denial of permission to do something, an incapacity to do or attain something. While considered an acceptable alternative spelling for cannot, it is used quite a bit less frequently. However, when the word not in can not is part of the construction of a term following can not, then it is rendered as two words. An example sentence: “Jenny can not only read, she can also write.” In this instance, the word not is part of the construction not only. Another case where can not would be rendered as two words: “Johnny can go to the fair or he can not go to the fair.” In this example, the word not is a part of the phrase not go to the fair, meaning that Johnny has a choice whether to go or not go. In general, it is safer to render the term as one word, cannot, except when the word not is part of the construction of a term following the word can not.

Examples

In a significant judgment, the Madras High Court Bench here has said that a police officer facing disciplinary proceedings on corruption charges cannot seek a direction to promote him without reference to the departmental action pending against him just because there was a delay of number of years in concluding the proceedings. (The Hindu)

Butler County can not sue telephone providers for failing to collect 911 fees, according to a ruling today in Butler County Court. (The Butler Eagle)

Lynchburg-area treatment program Roads to Recovery relies on a faith that those suffering in addiction can not only heal, but can become healers. (The News and Advance)

We can sit there and think about what to say, we can not respond, we can do whatever we want, but an immediate answer is easy to escape. (The Huffington Post)

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