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.


  1. Lexicography is at least as thankless a task as copyediting.
    Not excusing the error, just sayin’. 🙂

  2. I always think of the Gettysburg Address when I see people do that.

  3. I think there is a good reason that “can not” is two seperate words, being that you can make the combination of “can” and “not” into “can’t.” This is just the reason why a word such as “could” is not “couldnot” and is instead put together as “couldn’t.” The reason the word spoken is “cannot” is because as residents of North America we tend so slur our speech resulting in many different dialects.

  4. Nice piece — I had essentially the same experience, with the same dismay that “can not” was used at the definition of “cannot” — seemed both wrong and circular at the same time. Some people have claimed that “can not” is a useful way to spell “canNOT” as in “you canNOT wash the cat in the Maytag!” but I think that “you may not wash the cat in the Maytag!” would be better in that case. I think “can not” should be avoided because it’s ambiguous on its face — does it mean you have a choice not to do something, or does it mean you have no choice?

  5. Wyatt H Knott says

    Why bother to say can not or cannot, when in spoken speech the vast majority of usage is “can’t”, a perfectly acceptable contraction of can not (and notice I did not say ‘”for the expansion of can’t.”)

  6. I donot understand why any one wouldnot think cannot isnot one word.

  7. I’ve actually struggled with this one. I googled and got this post. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this angle: My mom (a teacher) had a huge old dictionary when I was growing up. Not sure which one, but it said that cannot was to be used when the word “but” follows. ie. I cannot but look their direction when they are whispering so loudly. can not is for saying I can not do this or that. People have just tried to shortcut it and make it one word, so the definition changed. I’ve tried to use the one word version in order to conform, but always wondered…

  8. My best guess is that you’re misremembering (or misunderstood at the time) what the dictionary said, though if you ever turn it up and it does say that, let me know and I’ll add it to this entry. But it’s been one word for a long time; the OED has this quote from Cursor Mundi, which the “can” entry dates to around 1400 and the “sorous” (‘sorrowful’) entry to around 1300:
    And þou þat he deed fore cannot sorus be.

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