cannot: OED pronunciation

David Bowie db.list at PMPKN.NET
Tue Jan 18 14:32:08 UTC 2005

From:    Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>

: 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
: (not-possible/permitted):

<snip, including examples>

Okay, i've tried, and i just can't (no pun intended) get the distinction
from the orthography. To me, the two sentences "An Episcopalian priest
cannot/can not marry" are both quite equally ambiguous, at least in written
form. (In writing, i prefer the "can not" method for both, but i've been
smacked down for that often enough that i've learned to search and replace
before sending something out for other people to look at it.) The stress
pattern disambiguates the sentences, of course, but i can read either
sentence with either stress pattern.

I realize this makes me evil and mentally weak and all that, but i'll get
over it.

FWIW, just to add more fuel, in my pronunciation (where @ is short-a):

can (n., container; v., to put in a container): [k at n]
can (v., showing possibility or permission): [kEn]
cannot/can not (negative of v., possibility): [kEnat] (w/ second
   syllable stress)
can't: [k at nt]

I was in a graduate seminar once where the professor said that only speakers
of NYC English phonetically distinguish the two verbs 'can' and 'can'. I
said i (from Maryland, south of DC) make such a distinction, and said
professor responded that i didn't (by definition, i suppose), and that i was
merely forcing the distinction i'd just demonstrated.

Not the most glorious moment in the history of teaching about American
dialects, i'd say.

David Bowie                               
    Jeanne's Two Laws of Chocolate: If there is no chocolate in the
    house, there is too little; some must be purchased. If there is
    chocolate in the house, there is too much; it must be consumed.

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