cannot: OED pronunciation

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 17 16:41:56 UTC 2005

At 9:33 AM -0500 1/17/05, Dale Coye wrote:
>Quite a discussion arose on the History of Eng. Lang. list over the
>pronunciation of cannot.  A non-native speaker, a teacher, had been
>teaching the
>pronunciation of the second syllable as schwa--because that's what
>the OED has.  UK
>and US speakers responding agreed that that is incorrect--it's the same vowel
>as "not."    That seems right to me. So where did the OED get schwa?
>       On a related note, I'm wondering if the spelling "cannot" may be
>fighting a losing battle against "can not" in the youngest
>generation, based on the
>number of my students who seem never to have absorbed the single-word
>convention in high school--maybe because their teachers didn't teach
>it.   I don't
>know if "can not" has slipped past any editors yet, or made its way into
>dictionaries, but maybe it won't be long.
One point worth making is that despite the standard gloss of "cannot"
as "can not" in a number of dictionaries, the two expressions are not
interchangeable.  "Cannot", like "can't", is a lexical item, and as
such it has a partially opaque meaning.  In this case, "can not" can
be used when the modal takes wide scope with respect to the negation,
while "cannot"/"can't" are always understood with wide-scope negation

An Episcopalian priest can not marry (if he doesn't want to).
[CAN [NOT]] (*cannot)
A Catholic priest can not marry (whether he wants to or not).   [NOT
[CAN]] (cannot is OK)

You can not finish your dissertation (can't you?)
You {cannot/can't} finish your dissertation (*can't you?)
[only NOT [CAN]]

You can not go to the party.               (it's up to you)
You {cannot/can't} go to the party.   (sorry about that)

and so on.  (I have a little story on why such lexical items tend to
be interpretable with only the not-possible or not-permitted scope,
while non-lexicalized phrases like "can not" may be freer in their
interpretive possibilities, but that's another story.)

Once we accept that "cannot" is a lexical item, it would not be too
surprising to find variation in how it's pronounced, but I confess
I'm equally ignorant about the detection of a [kaen at t] pronunciation.
Maybe upper-crust RPish?

Also perhaps worth noting:  "couldn't" exhibits the same restriction
(wide scope negation) vis-à-vis "could not", but there's no
corresponding "orthographic lexicalization" of the form _couldnot_.
So at least the semantic restriction on "can't" should survive even
if, God forfend, _cannot_ disappears.


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