Can Not or Cannot

Failing to proofread essay leads to a confused teacherNumerous articles on the Internet attempt to answer the question of whether you should use can not or cannot in your written English and many sources claim that the two are interchangeable and mean exactly the same.

It appears that even the Washington State University language site supports this view. When discussing whether you can use can not or cannot interchangeably they state:

“These two spellings are largely interchangeable.”

Now I am going to do something crazy and disagree with the Washington State University: you should never use Can not or cannot interchangeably because they mean two completely different things.

Can Not or Cannot



Cannot means pretty much what it says: something is just not possible. For example, I cannot step in a time machine right now and transport myself back in time to sing Hound Dog with Elvis Presley on the front lawn of Graceland Mansion—it is totally and utterly impossible.

Can not

Can not means that something may, or may not, be possible. For example, you can sing like Elvis Presley, or you can not sing like Elvis Presley. Either way, it’s entirely possible that someone could sing like Elvis.

To summarize:

Cannot / Can’t= absolutely could never, ever happen. The option does not exist.

Can not= it could happen. The option does exist and it is feasible that it may occur.

When it comes to choosing whether to use can not or cannot in your written English, remember that there is a difference and the two should NOT be used interchangeably.

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