Cannot or Can Not or Can’t?

Is it cannot or can not or can’t? Here, we look at the proper way to use all three variations.

Graphic showing female contemplating Cannot or Can Not

Can’t

Can’t is simply a contraction of cannot, and therefore not always suitable for formal writing. It is often found in everyday speaking and writing:

  • He can’t drive until his leg heals. 
  • She can’t imagine anyone else being able to do the job as well as him. 

With that said, there are places outside of informal conversation and writing where can’t is acceptable. For example MLA (Modern Language Association) format. Using cannot throughout might seem a bit stuffy. Can’t will sound more conversational and approachable.

Cannot 

As mentioned above, you will find cannot in formal speech and writing. Some examples are research studies, professional presentations, formal emails, academic reports, etc. These are all examples of places where cannot is the appropriate choice. Some examples of formal sentences with cannot are:  

  • Our recent case study cannot directly correlate the company’s rebranding with a decline in sales.
  • We regret to inform you that we cannot accept your research at this time. 
  • Due to recent downsizing policies, the company cannot offer upward mobility opportunities to its workers this year. 
  • Our department cannot deliver its report by the set deadline due to extensive complications. 

Another place where you can find cannot is when someone wishes to emphasize a point. Note the strong emphasis on not:

  • No, we cannot just forget what happened.
  • I cannot believe that he said that to you! 
  • The company cannot accept these sales trends as the new norm.

In these cases, some may think that the emphasis on not demands the use of can not (as two words). While this may be an acceptable alternative, generally, cannot is preferred by most writers.

Can not

When you are not sure if it’s proper to use cannot or can not, just the remember that it should be one word: cannot. You would only see the words can and not written separately when the word “can” precedes another phrase that just so happens to start with “not”:

  • He can not only sing well but also plays the piano beautifully. 
  • The new team can not only produce better results but do so with extreme efficiency. 

Can not as two separate words can also be used when the speaker or writer has the option not to do something. In such cases, the word can connects to the negative form of an active verb. For example:

  • If the Senator wishes to win re-election, he can not avoid this issue. 
  • Perhaps we can not worry about it this week?
  • If we want to win this contract, we can not cancel the meeting.

When used in question form, the noun or pronoun is placed between can and not:

  • Can we not talk about this today?
  • Can Michael not be the one to deliver the bad news? 
  • Can the siblings not fight for at least one day?

These are less common. However, they need to keep their two-word formation to convey the intended meaning.  

A quick summary:  

  • Can’t is a contraction of cannot. It is not well-suited for formal writing and is more appropriate in informal conversation, writing, or MLA format.
  • In formal writing, using cannot, as contractions are frowned upon.
  • Can not is possible to use when it is part of another construction, for example “not only…but also.” It can also be used in question form with the noun or pronoun separating the two words, for example, “he can not avoid this if he wishes to succeed.” Or when the speaker has the ability not to do something, for example, “can we not argue?”

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