TL;DR – “Cannot” and “can’t” are both correct; “can not” is also acceptable but less common and might be used for emphasis in phrases like “You can not only swim but also dive.”
“Cannot,” “can’t,” and “can not” are all forms of the negative modal verb used to express inability or refusal in the English language. Each form has its place and context:
- Cannot: This is a single word and the most common form used in both American and British English, especially in formal writing. Derived from Middle English and Old English, it literally means “to be unable to” or “not permitted to.”
- Example: I cannot complete the assignment by tomorrow.
- Can’t: This is the contracted form of “cannot.” The apostrophe indicates the abbreviation, making “can’t” suitable for informal writing and speech. It’s widely accepted and understood by native English speakers.
- Example: I can’t attend the meeting.
- Can not: This is a less frequent version, made up of separate words. It’s often used for emphasis, especially in constructions like “can not only… but also…”
- Example: He can not only write, but he can also illustrate.
While “cannot” and “can’t” are synonymous and interchangeable in most contexts, “can not” is reserved for specific emphatic constructions. When in doubt, especially in formal contexts like an MLA-styled paper or a LinkedIn post, “cannot” is the safest choice.
How do you use can’t or cannot in a sentence?
Both “can’t” and “cannot” convey the idea of inability or the lack of permission, but “can’t” is a contraction and tends to be more informal. Here’s how you can use them in sentences:
- Inability: I can’t swim.
- Lack of permission: You can’t enter without a ticket.
- Improbability: It can’t be true!
- Inability: I cannot complete this task without the necessary tools.
- Lack of permission: Students cannot use their phones during the exam.
- Improbability: This cannot be the result you were hoping for.
In everyday spoken English, “can’t” is probably more commonly used than “cannot.” However, in more formal written contexts, “cannot” might be preferred. Both are correct; the choice largely depends on the level of formality and personal style.
Published on: 2023-09-30
Updated on: 2023-10-06