The Spelling of Cannot

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 29 14:41:11 UTC 2001


>Every year I'm amazed at how many of my freshmen and sophomores do not seem
>to ever have heard that 'cannot' is written as one word.     I can only
>conclude that many high school teachers aren't aware of it either... so maybe
>we're in the midst of a change-- I don't think any dictionaries list it as
>two words? (Too lazy to look right now)
>
I'm not sure what you mean.  When "can not" is two words, it wouldn't
be listed in the dictionary any more than "could not" is.  They do
all list "cannot", often with (as I mentioned) the misleading gloss
'can not'.  Not always, though--the AHD4 slyly glosses it as 'the
negative form of "can".'  "shouldn't", on the other hand, is glossed
as 'the contraction of should not', which is right as far as it goes.
(In particular, shouldn't is not normally the negative form of
should, since both "You should do it" and "You shouldn't do it" can
be simultaneously false, if it doesn't matter whether you do it or
not.)  As far as spelling "cannot" as one word with no spaces, that
is I believe a somewhat higher-register thing to do, and as I was
arguing earlier today it's never really obligatory, so if your
students aren't doing it, it's hard to know what to conclude.

larry
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