Cannot and Can Not

Posted: February 5th, 2014, 10:00 am   By: brittany.corners

“You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor.”—Gandalf, putting the brakes on the Balrog.

Yowza! We just hopped in the windowless van and took a trip to Nerd Alert City. However, do not despair—it’s not as bad as watching Franklin and Bash, right? In fact, Gandalf has illustrated our topic of the week: using cannot and can not.


When Cannot = Can Not

Most of the time, cannot and can not mean the same thing and may be employed interchangeably. Here are some straightforward examples:

  • Al Swearengen cannot stand the Pinkertons.
  • I can not believe that, after letting her five-year-old daughter go tanning, Patricia Krentcil could still turn the afterburners to eleven.

When Cannot ≠ Can Not

Sometimes, on infrequent occasions, one must only use can not. This most often happens in one of the following situations: a) you’re trying to say the option exists not to do something; or b) when employing a phrase that already contains the word not (e.g., the construction not only, but also). Here is an example to illustrate each situation:

a) The monkey can not eat a banana; perhaps he would enjoy a fish sandwich from Leon Phelps.

b) My father can not only sport sandals with socks, but also gym shorts with a polo shirt.

Why You Can’t Use Can’t

In addition to cannot and can not, we also have a third way to say the same thing: the contraction can’t. However, please remember you’re not supposed to use contractions in your work for Write.com.*

*Yes, you will frequently see contractions and second- and first-person points of view on this blog—but, as my parents torturously reminded me throughout my youth, sometimes it’s a “do as I say not as I do” sitch here. Life isn’t fair.