Moorishgirl links to a review by David Kipen of the new 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which we’ve recently gotten at work. It’s not bad for a newspaper review—it points out that “dictionaries are snapshots from life, not idealized friezes” and makes the useful observation that few of the periodicals combed by lexicographers for usage “are edited west of the Mississippi, or even the Hudson”—but I’m mainly using it as a pretext to talk about a dictionary problem that came to light at work. A fellow editor discovered that somebody had inserted a space into cannot, and wanting to back up his insistence that it had to be one word, he turned to his brand-new Webster’s. Imagine his horror, and mine when I saw it, at finding that the definition for the word was “can not.”
This is appalling for two quite distinct reasons: from a copy-editing point of view because it implies that cannot and can not are interchangeable, and from a lexicographical point of view because it’s a lousy definition. The definition of cannot should be either “the negative form of can” (as the AHD has it) or a periphrasis like “is not able to.” 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.” In that case, it is clearly two separately spoken words, with the not given special emphasis, and equally clearly it means something very different from cannot, namely “have the option of not (doing something).” The only acceptable form for the unabbreviated negative of can (or, if you prefer, for the expansion of can’t) is cannot, one word. People are always trying to put a space in there, and we poor overworked editors need some backup; help us out, Webster’s!
For those who may be thinking “But aren’t you one of those anything-goes descriptivists?”: sure, when it comes to speech, and written forms that accurately reflect a chosen form of speech. If ain’t is part of your natural vocabulary, you should say and write it fearlessly, and you have my full support. But this is different. Nobody says can not (two distinct spoken words) except in the rare context I mentioned above; the negative of can is pronounced as one word, k@NOT or KAnot, and therefore it is a crime against accurate representation of spoken English as well as against the rules of written style to write can not.