I wrote about the issue of cannot versus can not way back in 2003; as I said there, “The only context in which can not, two words, occurs is as an emphatic alternative: ‘You can do it, or you can not do it.’” Today ESPN provided a perfect illustration of why the negative must always (except in that rare circumstance) be spelled as one word, cannot. In a graphic at the top of the screen during the disastrous first half against Slovenia (the 2-0 score looked so bad that my brother turned off the TV and took a nap, having gotten up at 3:30 AM to watch the first game of the day), they ran the following announcement:
U.S. CAN NOT ADVANCE OR BE ELIMINATED TODAY
Now, what that unambiguously says, and the way I first read it, is: “The U.S. team can either fail to advance or be eliminated as a result of today’s games.” That doesn’t make any sense, of course, because if they fail to advance, they’re eliminated, but that’s what it says. A moment’s thought showed that what they meant was not CAN NOT but CANNOT: “It is not possible for the U.S. team to either advance or be eliminated as a result of today’s games.” People make fun of style rules as the hobgoblin of little minds, but this is a good example of why clarity demands them.
Here‘s the NY Times report on the game, which was a thriller. This is not a sports blog and I do not usually say this kind of thing, but the U.S. was robbed by some of the worst refereeing I have ever seen. There was no reason to call back the goal that would have made it 3-2 in the final minutes except blindness or worse. Fie, I say! Fie!