Cannot vs. Can Not: Grammar Guide

Can Not vs. Cannot: Comprehensive Examples to Enhance Your English

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Derek Cupp

By Derek Cupp

Ever found yourself puzzled over the correct usage of “cannot” vs. “can not”? You’re not alone; it’s a common conundrum that many English language learners, and even native speakers, grapple with.

The ambiguity between these two similar yet distinctly different terms can lead to confusion. The good news? I’m here to demystify this grammar mystery for you. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a solid understanding of when to use “cannot” and “can not”, eliminating any lingering doubt.

So let’s dive right in and explore the nuances between ‘cannot’ versus ‘can not’, ensuring your future written communications are spot-on!

Can NotYou can choose to not attend the meeting.“Can Not” is used when you have the option to not do something. “Not” here is associated more with “choose” than “can”.
CannotYou cannot attend the meeting without an invitation.“Cannot” is used when something is not possible or allowed.
Can NotHe can not only sing, but also dance.“Can Not” is often used in the form “not only… but also…” to give more information about something or someone.
CannotI cannot believe that you are moving to another city.“Cannot” is used to express disbelief or inability in general.
Can NotThey can not finish the project, but they can start it.“Can Not” is often found in context where it’s providing an option, and ‘not’ negates the verb that follows ‘can’.
CannotShe cannot go to the party because she is ill.“Cannot” is typically used when an action is not permitted or possible.
Can NotYou can not only study, but also work part-time.“Can Not” is often used in the form “not only… but also…” to describe two abilities or possibilities.
CannotWe cannot ignore the global warming issue.“Cannot” is used to describe something that is impossible or not permitted.
Can NotYou can not understand the complexity until you face it.“Can Not” indicates the possibility of choosing not to do something.
CannotHe cannot swim, hence he stays away from pools.“Cannot” is used to express inability or impossibility.

Understanding the Difference: Can Not vs. Cannot

Let’s dive right into one of English language’s tricky duos: “can not” and “cannot.” You’ve probably seen both used, which might leave you scratching your head. After all, they look similar, but do they mean the same thing? The answer is yes… and no.

First things first, “cannot” is a contraction of “can not.” It’s the more commonly used version in American English. If I say, “I cannot go to the party tonight,” it means that I’m unable to attend due to some reason.

However, there’s a twist! Occasionally you’ll see “can not” used instead of “cannot,” but typically only for emphasis or specific stylistic choices. For instance, if I write out, “I can not only run a mile but also lift heavy weights,” it emphasizes that I have two abilities—running and lifting—not just one.

It’s essential to note that this usage of “can not” is generally less common and can lead to confusion since readers often expect “cannot.” So unless you’re looking for a particular effect or emphasis in your writing, it’s safer to stick with “cannot.”

Here are examples illustrating their usage:

I cannot come to work today.Here ‘cannot’ denotes inability or impossibility.
He said he can not only sing but also dance.In this case ‘can not’ is used for emphasis showing multiple capabilities.

So remember folks – while both forms technically mean the same thing (the absence of ability), they’re employed differently. Use ‘cannot’ most often when expressing lack of capability and save ‘can not’ for times when you want extra emphasis on dual abilities!

Practical Applications of ‘Cannot’ and ‘Can Not’

Let’s delve into the practical uses of these two variants. The term ‘cannot’ is far more common in written and spoken English. It’s used to express that something is impossible or not permissible.

Here are a few examples:

  • I cannot run a marathon without training.
  • You cannot park your car here.

On the other hand, we have ‘can not’. While it may seem identical to ‘cannot’, it’s less frequently used and has specific applications only in certain contexts where emphasis needs to be placed on the word “not”.

For instance:

  • I could go to the party, but I can not (emphasizing “not”) because I have to study for an exam.

Here’s how you can differentiate between them:

CannotExpressing inability or prohibition
Can NotEmphasizing “not” in some contexts

One critical point about usage: when “not” forms part of another phrase, like “not only…but also”, you’ll need to separate “can” and “not”.


  • She can not only sing but also dance brilliantly.

In this case, we’re using ‘can’ with ‘not only’ – hence they’re separated. So remember, context matters!

A quick note on contraction as well. In informal writing or speaking, we often contract cannot into can’t. For example:

  • We can’t ignore the importance of regular exercise.

Just keep in mind that contractions might be deemed too casual for formal documents or academic assignments! And there you’ve got it – a no-nonsense guide to using ‘cannot’ versus ‘can not’.

In Conclusion: Choosing Between Can Not and Cannot

Distinguishing between “can not” and “cannot” can be tricky, but it’s a fundamental skill in mastering English grammar. Though used interchangeably by many, these two expressions do have subtle differences in usage.

Let’s take a look at when to use each one:

  • “Cannot” is generally used when expressing something that is impossible or unable to occur. For instance, “I cannot run a marathon without training.” Here, the term implies an impossibility.
  • On the other hand, “can not” is often employed when there are options involved. It typically appears before another verb as part of a contracted negation. An example could be: “You can choose to not eat dessert.” In this case, “not eating dessert” is presented as an option.

However, it should be noted that these rules aren’t set in stone. Context is king in English language usage; hence understanding the nuances comes with practice.

Here are some common examples illustrating their distinct uses:

I cannot believe what just happened!Expresses disbelief
You can choose to not join us for dinner.Offers an option

In conclusion (and yes, we’re breaking our rule about avoiding conclusions here), while both terms express negation, they do so in subtly different ways. As we continue exploring the vast landscape of English grammar together on this blog, remember that context and practice are your best friends!

In our next post, we’ll delve into more grammar-related topics like this one – ensuring you have all the tools necessary for clear communication in written English. Stay tuned!

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