Cannot or Can not?

August 16, 2011

in Essay Writing

Recently one of readers sent in query for an essay, wondering when to use “cannot” and when to use “can not”. So, Kiyra, here is your answer.

Type “can not” into MS Word and you may be forgiven for thinking that you have done something wrong. Yet you haven’t, at least not according to long standing authorities on the English language.

– If we start with Merriam-Webster, you will see that the dictionary lists cannot as one word.

– Move quickly to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and we find the following: cannot is the ordinary modern way of writing can not.

– For an American take on the matter we can look at The Washington State University Website, which says:

These two spellings [cannot/can not] are largely interchangeable, but by far the most common is “cannot” and you should probably use it except when you want to be emphatic: “No, you can not wash the dog in the Maytag.”

Historically “cannot” could be written “can not” and even “canot”, yet as I write my spell check is being triggered by the latter.

Of course, most kids these days are brought up with the contraction “can’t”, which of course should be left for less formal writings, yet is rearing its head in all forms of literature.

In truth, both cannot and can not are acceptable, but in the modern day the former is more common. There are, of course examples when you would use can not when the ‘not’ forms part of another construction such as “not only”.

In truth there is no real difference, but for the sake of appeasing your readership you should probably use cannot.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Leanna Smith July 30, 2012 at 1:52 am

There is good content here; however, in the sentence referring to “can’t” the writer seems to have confused the use of the apostrophe, adding it in a possessive form. “…yet is rearing it’s head in all…” Would not the correct term be “its”?


Jenn July 20, 2016 at 11:47 am

Deep thought! Thanks for cotibirutnng.


Dawnett June 5, 2017 at 5:18 am


You’re correct! It’s means it is so using it in the context was incorrect. However, the information presented is otherwise appreciated!!


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