cannot: OED pronunciation

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Jan 18 15:13:24 UTC 2005

At 9:32 AM -0500 1/18/05, David Bowie wrote:
>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.
Very interesting.  So for you it's possible to write

An Episcopalian priest cannot marry if he doesn't want to marry.
You cannot go to the meeting, can't you?

For me, these are impossible, although they'd be fine with "can not"
in place of "cannot". (Note that the reading I'm trying to force with
these frames is the 'possible not' or 'permitted not', as in "can, if
he wants, not marry".)

My claim, perhaps not optimally expressed, is that "can not" allows
both interpretations, 'not possible' (or 'not permitted') and
'possible not' (or 'permitted not'), but "cannot" only allows the
former.  In this respect, "cannot" is like "can't" rather than like
"can not".  If you don't share this intuition, that would be
interesting (to me, anyway).  Notice that I'm making no claim that
"can not" is unambiguous; the claim is only about "cannot".

If you can write the above sentences in the indicated way, do you
distinguish between the "cannot" versions and the inflected versions
with "can't", i.e.

An Episcopalian priest can't marry if he doesn't want to marry.
You can't go to the meeting, can't you?

?  Or are these possible for you as well?

Larry, *trying* to do descriptive and not prescriptive semantic dialectology

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