Grammar Pet Peeve of the Day: “cannot” is one word, not two

Once again today I was assailed by a common spelling bug I see in code around the world. This example comes from PHP’s WASP:

can not write to 'compileDir'

Folks, cannot is one word, not two. “can not” in this context is simply incorrect. Yes, I know this is weird and inconsistent; but this is English we’re talking about, not Esperanto. The entire language is inconsistent and confusing, and this is just one small part of it.

On rare occasions one might use the two word form can not to put special emphasis on the word not, but even that’s questionable in written English. Please do us sticklers a favor and do a global search and replace in your code base to change all occurrences of “can not” to “cannot”. Thank you. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

15 Responses to “Grammar Pet Peeve of the Day: “cannot” is one word, not two”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Picky, picky, picky. It’s just archaic, and passed without comment until the late 19th century or so. Anyone who uses “albeit” instead of “although” (I trust you pronounce it properly as “all be it”) shouldn’t complain about the occasional archaism.

  2. Fred Swartz Says:

    It’s curious that you worship the status quo in English, flaws and all, but preach that programming languages should be improved. Why not try to make English better, even if only in some minor way?

  3. Dexter Riley Says:

    Reposted from

    I donot understand why any one wouldnot think cannot isnot one word.
    Posted by: Vroo at February 24, 2005 03:24 AM

  4. Darnel Says:

    Some idiots just won’t just accept that English is what it is, complex.

    Cannot is one word, not two. End of discussion.

  5. Matt Says:

    “Cannot” is an informal way of saying “can not”. It is not correct to choose cannot. It’s just stupid… unless you like the word, “ain’t” too. I bet you do. Idgit!

  6. Frank Says:

    What? “Cannot” is an informal way of saying “can not”? That is too funny. The improper use of the two-word version of “cannot” has become an epidemic. I hate it.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Matt is right! It’s “can not” just like any other contraction! It’s informal to use “cannot”.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    “CAN NOT” is TWO WORDS!! Gosh, you people are dumb! “cannot” used to be the standard way of writing “can” and “not”. The grammar books may not have caught up with this spelling yet.

  9. Steve Says:

    Webster and his dictionary does not say that “cannot” can not be two words. In fact, they list specific examples that use “cannot” with an auxiliary word. They do not list any examples of “cannot” without the auxiliary word. Now, the very first definition of “cannot” does not contain example sentences because it is very clear how to use it. That first definition of “cannot” is simply “can not.” In closing, there is not one single case where “cannot” must be used, but there are a few isolated cases where it is preferred. I am a stenographer, and in our steno world, we insist that “cannot” be used in almost all cases. We (as a profession) are wrong. And so are you.

  10. Dawn Says:

    According to this is can be used either way. The cannot useage is just more common. Unabridged (v 1.1) – Cite This Source – Share This
    can·not Audio Help /ˈkænÉ’t, kæˈnÉ’t, kÉ™-/ Pronunciation Key – Show Spelled Pronunciation[kan-ot, ka-not, kuh-] Pronunciation Key – Show IPA Pronunciation
    1. a form of ·can not.
    2. cannot but, have no alternative but to: We cannot but choose otherwise.
    [Origin: 1350–1400; ME]

    —Usage note Cannot is sometimes also spelled can not. The one-word spelling is by far the more common: Interest rates simply cannot continue at their present level. The contraction can’t is most common in speech and informal writing. See also can1.

  11. Bart Says:

    Cannot is one word. I don’t know where people learnt their English, but cannot has always been one word. It is not Americanism, it is not contraction, and it is not laziness.

    There is a reason it is one word and not two. “Can not” implies a choice (you acknowledged something and chose not to do it), and “cannot” simply means an inability to do something. This, for those who insist that “can not” are two words, is something they cannot appreciate (notice the one word).

    If your English teacher tells you “can not” are two words, he should have been studying instead of smoking weed. Or worse, he might have been a linguistics student at one time (in that case he should be on the dole, not taking up public funds by being a bad English teacher). But then again, languages have always “evolved” around human ignorance.

  12. Bobby Says:

    Wouldn’t it be “‘can not’ IS two words”, Bart? Other than that, I agree. They are both correct and have different meanings. Please do your research “know-it-alls” before you post something on a blog. This is how the web dumbs down America. They are both correct in the correct context. Get a life

  13. Numero Says:

    Reply to Steve, re: Webster.
    Source of the following quote:
    . 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!

  14. Numero Says:

    From :
    Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993.
    The negative of the auxiliary can, cannot occurs less frequently than the contraction can’t but much more frequently than can not, which is sometimes used for emphasis and to reflect the fact that this locution may be stressed on the not as well as on the can. Cannot is Formal, can’t relatively Informal in writing, and can’t is the more frequent in Conversational contexts, but it is often appropriate as well even in some Oratorical uses. All three forms are Standard. Cannot, like can’t, is a very frequent replacement for may not. See also CAN (1).

  15. Cutieboots Says:

    Actually, “Cannot” is a Britishism, and is acceptable in UK usage, but it depends on where you’re from, (much in the same way that “learnt” is not in American usage, either.) In America, correct grammatical usage is to write “Can not” as two separate words.

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