CAN NOT.

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!

Comments

  1. The referee was from Timbuktu. That tells you right there.

  2. Ah, he was following the rulebook of 1327. Yes, that explains a lot.

  3. Just as well, England are playing their worst football in decades.

  4. I assume your brother lives on the West Coast since the first game started at 7:30 am on the East coast (and that game had awful officiating too, but nowhere near as bad as the US-Slovenia game).

  5. Yes, he does, in beautiful Santa Barbara.

  6. LH, I think you are falling into the prescriptivist heresy!
    I have never used “cannot” but always “can not” or “can’t”. To me “cannot” has always seemed simply two words run together.
    And that ESPN streamer you cite is simply badly written. Whether you write “can not” or “cannot”, the initial impulse is to take it as applying only to the verb it immediately precedes (“can not/cannot advance”)–exactly what your first thought was–and not to take it as some sort of algebraicly distributed term [cannot (advance or be eliminated)]. Consider how much more comprehensible it would have been to say “US will neither advance nor be eliminated today”.
    Descriptively yours…

  7. Well, “can not” is certainly older than “cannot”, and is still quite common in this sense (though I would never use it myself). And “may not” is still completely ambiguous. So maybe clarity demands style rules, but the style rules we’ve got? They aren’t doing a very good job.

  8. michael farris says:

    I agree with kishnevi, hat. You’re confusing ‘I like’ with ‘everybody should’. I usually write cannot but I don’t assume that most speakers distinguish cannot and can not because there’s no evidence that they do.

  9. This is turning (as so often) into a game of “more descriptivist than thou”. Head, meet heart.

  10. England have been playing their worst football in decades for decades now. Since 1966, in fact, and they only just won then. Like Fulham, they’re almost certain to lose anything important. They are a boring, defensive team in boring white outfits. I support Argentina.

  11. Sometimes I support Brazil.

  12. From the LRB blog, by Glen Newey. I think there’s money to be made by betting against England.

    The obvious thing about odds is that they aren’t probabilities. They reflect the behaviour of those who back up their smart or fat-headed hunches with hard corn. So those who sentimentally back England shorten the odds for future mug punters bent on the same acker-nuking bet. It was in keeping that my father, one of the most risk-averse people I’ve met, spent his working life as a bookie. The Yiddish term vigorish (cf. Russian выигрыш, ‘profit’) names the bookie’s percentage margin over and above a fair book. Your duff punt is my dad’s vigorish is the downpayment on his BMW. That’s why it’s better to bet, or better still, do arbitrage, on Betfair or similar brokerage sites.

  13. Usage of the reduced contracted forms: can’t, don’t, won’t etc. seems so natural that when on the occasions you do find yourself having to write them in full they feel like you’re affecting the assumed mock language of 17th century Puritans. I don’t think I’ve ever written ‘cannot’ I think of it being two words, has it ever been written hyphenated?

  14. Usual prescriptivist nonsense. (Tips hat to sane contributors) Not only that, your prescription is poorly founded, although I agree there is a difference in emphasis, for most users anyway. But there is no formal & universal – or even broad – prescription of a semantic difference between cannot, can’t and can not.

  15. Apparently England have drawn more matches 0-0 than any other team in World Cup history.

  16. No need to rub it in, Crown.

  17. Noetica says:

    Just as can not differs from cannot more than orthographically, can’t differs from both. In a question, can’t is unbreakable. We say Can’t you see? but in PDE we seldom say *?Cannot you see? If we avoid a contraction for formality’s sake, we say Can you not see? Can’t is one step further along than cannot in grammaticalisation (to use the term in one of its broader senses), and the one cannot be freely substituted for the other merely to diminish or augment formality. Perhaps can’t gains acceptance from having such a role that cannot can’t fill. Same for the others: don’t, haven’t, etc. Compare gonna.
    We might say I can almost not hear you, and we would not mean I can {almost not hear you} but rather Almost {I cannot hear you}. No such split is possible with can’t: *I can almost [n]‘t hear you.
    Meh.

  18. michael farris says:

    I should clarify one point, there is, I think, a difference in mainstream spoken SAE between cannot (with can receiving more stress) and can not (with not receiving more stress).
    It might be nice if native speakers who make the distinction used cannot for the first and can not for the second but one of the features of ‘standard’ written English is that it doesn’t really mark that kind of important stress distinction. Informal usage has some, not always clear, ways of doing that but it’s far less subtle than the actual stress distinctions of SAE (which may differ from stress distinctions in other kinds of English).
    If we want to use that kind of rule then also
    maynot (with stress on may) = might do it, or might not.
    He maynot go.
    may not (with stress on not) = is not allowed to
    He may not go.
    Again, a nice idea in some ways, but not in line with actual usage which treats cannot and can not as interchangeable.

  19. People get so het up with this prescriptivist vs descriptivist bollocks – life’s too short.

  20. “That doesn’t make any sense, of course, because if they fail to advance, they’re eliminated, but that’s what it says”
    Not true at all. Since it was a draw, it’s not yet decided whether they’ll advance from the group.

  21. Usual prescriptivist nonsense.
    Heh. It’s always refreshing to be accused of prescriptivism. But no, you’re quite wrong. This is not a question of grammar (which is where prescriptivism comes into it) but of spelling (which is the province of style guides). Just as you are not allowed to spell dog with two g’s because it seems more doggy to you that way, you are not allowed to spell the negative of can as two words. This is not my personal caprice, this is enforced by all copyeditors who know their business, and to see why, you need only look at my example.
    Not true at all. Since it was a draw, it’s not yet decided whether they’ll advance from the group.
    You have missed the point. Since “it’s not yet decided whether they’ll advance,” they have not “failed to advance,” which means they haven’t been eliminated. If they do wind up failing to advance, they will have ipso facto been eliminated.

  22. michael farris says:

    “This is not a question of grammar (which is where prescriptivism comes into it) but of spelling (which is the province of style guides).”
    I think that’s a largely artificial distinction. Both are a question of common usage.
    “Just as you are not allowed to spell dog with two g’s because it seems more doggy to you that way, you are not allowed to spell the negative of can as two words.”
    But if enough people began spelling dog as dogg then that would be the new spelling. Just as ‘can not’ is now used (by non-copy editors) as a free variant of ‘cannot’.
    “This is not my personal caprice, this is enforced by all copyeditors who know their business, and to see why, you need only look at my example.”
    While you get extra-credit points for use of ‘caprice’ (is that Russian influence?) your argument still boils down to: “The cool kids all do this! And whoever writes graphics for ESPN is not a cool kid.”
    For the record, I immediately understood the intended meaning of the headline. Guess I’m not a cool kid afterall.

  23. Your duff punt is my dad’s vigorish is the downpayment on his BMW.
    People go to Las Vegas hoping to win, and don’t realize that the whole city was paid for by people like them who had lost. I do not understand gamblers.

  24. dearieme says:

    But everyone is a prescriptivist. They do differ, though, in the extent to which they deny it – perhaps even to themselves.

  25. @dearieme: So true!

  26. mollymooly says:

    Merriam-Webster’s dictionary of English usage also downplays any difference of sense between “cannot” and “can not”.
    “there is, I think, a difference in mainstream spoken SAE between cannot (with can receiving more stress) and can not (with not receiving more stress).”
    I’m not sure that’s true in AmE; John McEnroe’s autobiography “You cannot be serious” suggests otherwise.
    It is certainly true in BrE and IrE that “cannot” stresses the first syllable; but I don’t recall ever hearing someone say “cannot” in extemporaneous speech, perhaps because it sounds so prissy. The Irish Farmer’s Journal’s radio ads, ending “You cannot afford to miss it”, stand out in my memory; it is rare for Irish farmers to sound prissy.
    The same comments are probably true of all the unreduced negative auxiliaries, which are largely restricted to the Formal Written and Hollywood Medieval registers; it is strange that “cannot” alone is written solid. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice to reinforce the Useful Distinction of sense. I agree with hat that it remains Useful, but once enough writers disagree then it will cease to be so in spite of us.

  27. I agree with hat that it remains Useful, but once enough writers disagree then it will cease to be so in spite of us.
    True, true.

  28. No need to rub it in, Crown.
    I’m boycotting England for now and everyone else should do the same. There’s no reason to support a team just because we were all born in the same country. That’s just chauvinistic bias. I stopped supporting local teams, starting with the miserable Fulham FC, in 1962, and I was right then too. Fulham have lost regularly ever since. Thanks to Argentina, I have a good chance of winning the World Cup this year, with a clear conscience.

  29. You’d get 10,000 to 1 North Korea

  30. Kron, you and I will be celebrating together. I’ve even got an Argentina cap (thanks to my lovely wife).

  31. Slovenia cannot be stopped.

  32. mollymooly says:

    “I’ve even got an Argentina cap (thanks to my lovely wife).”
    Impressive! Did she blackmail Menotti to pick you for a friendly?

  33. There appears to be a controversy over how many caps Rüştü Reçber has received.

  34. There’s no reason to support a team just because we were all born in the same country. That’s just chauvinistic bias.
    Obviously you don’t have what it takes to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs. Or the old style Red Sox, whom you will note did eventually win solidly and resoundingly.

  35. Yes, the Red Sox is exactly the kind of team I’m talking about, they attract the same masochistic following* as Fulham.
    10,000 to 1 on N.Korea — you’d have a better chance of making more money if you were to hold up a bank.
    Language & I support a real team of footballers wearing attractive outfits**.
    *(not counting MMcM)
    **(the footballers)

  36. More on masochism, from the Guardian:

    Back home, England’s draw had at least been good news for bookmakers. William Hill said it had made a record £10m from punters backing a win. ITV said the match was watched by a peak audience of 21.3m, the largest for a football match on British television since Portugal beat England in the European Championship quarter-finals in 2004.

  37. I don’t know if being a self-styled football fanatic with 3 satellite dishes in my back yard specifically for the purpose of watching matches from across the globe but…
    I read ‘not’ in the ESPN announcement as ‘neither,’ and found it perfectly clear. If it were instead ‘cannot’ it makes it sound like ‘can never,’ and that the team has some kind of special dispensation whereby they can’t be eliminated ever, which of course makes no sense. Maybe it’s just me.

  38. 1st paragraph makes little sense. Writing on a phone presents certain challenges…

  39. My daughter makes telephone calls with her camera, though she prefers to use it as a typewriter.

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