English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Like the title says: I don't think "to can" is right :)

I mean "can" as in to be able to. I'm aware of other meanings.

I can't find the answer here. (There's What is an "infinitive"? which sidesteps this precise case). Online dictionaries draw a blank (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/can, e.g.).

I'm looking for some official indication that the infinitive doesn't exist for this irregular verb.

It would be nice if someone could share any information on how this has evolved to be the case.

share|improve this question
As a convention, use the blockquotes when you are quoting external sources, not merely to highlight. – Kris Feb 1 '13 at 15:46
Is there a proper term for the body-horror-esque feeling that questions like these give me? – fluffy Feb 1 '13 at 22:13
@fluffy I do think you might want to file that as a separate question :) (Perhaps you are referring to the sense of bewilderment that you never actually noticed the defectiveness of these verbs before? The shock and detached feeling, as if suddenly a floor was ripped away from under your feet and you gaze into the abyss? Or maybe just "how can people be so ignorant". In that case, let me give a hint: non-native speakers) – sehe Feb 1 '13 at 23:01
There is a "to can" and it means to seal food in a metal container immediately after cooking. City Slicker: "What do you do with all these tomatoes?" Farmer: "We eat what we can, and can what we can't." – Kaz Feb 1 '13 at 23:34
@fluffy: Do you pull your lips away from your mouth often? And, if so, how do you reattach them? – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 2 '13 at 3:07
up vote 58 down vote accepted

"Can" is a modal verb and doesn't have an infinitive

See "Defective verbs":

Defective verbs

The modal auxiliary verbs, can, may, shall, will and must are defective in that they do not have infinitives; so, one cannot say, *I want him to can do it, but rather must say, I want him to be able to do it. The periphrases to be able to, to have to and to be going to are generally used in these cases.

share|improve this answer
This Wikepedia article on defective verbs has a little explanation about WHY there are defective verbs, and even says "Some verbs are becoming more defective as time goes on" and gives examples. Interesting. – JLG Feb 1 '13 at 15:46
canz I blame LOLCat for why can is defective? – Foon Feb 1 '13 at 18:59
@Brian: The verb "will" in your sentence isn't a modal; therefore, it isn't grammatically defective. It is semantically defective, of course, because you cannot "will" [See 3 verb] anyone, except perhaps yourself by exercising your willpower, to do anything. – user21497 Feb 1 '13 at 22:21
@BillFranke: Sure you can. You can will someone to sleep, for example, or will the sun to rise. Both Collins and American Heritage allow this and, as an English person, I use it from time to time. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 2 '13 at 3:07
@Brian: You're talking about grammar, so the next comment is correct in one sense: "There's nothing grammatically wrong with that sentence". However, until you succeed in willing the sun to rise before its natural alarm clock rings it into the eastern sky, you'll just have to accept the reality of human life that your ability to "will" something to happen is believable only to those who live in a parallel & paranormal universe in which "telekinesis" ("psychokinesis") is reality & not Uri Geller or Nina Kulagina (saw them both on TV) "magic". – user21497 Feb 2 '13 at 4:00

The word "can," meaning to put in a can, has the infinitive "to can."

The modal verb "can," meaning to be able, is invariable and defective, the latter meaning it has no infinitive or participle forms.

share|improve this answer
Upvote for "to can" as in "We must get ready to can the beans." – Andrew Neely Feb 1 '13 at 19:35
And then of course there's the tropical bird who endorses Froot Loops: Toucan Sam! – MT_Head Feb 1 '13 at 21:31
@AndrewNeely ... and +1 for your example. What kind of extensive preparation is required before you can start canning the beans? – us2012 Feb 1 '13 at 21:32
+1 for the humour indeed. I accepted the other answer based on timestamp. Thanks for helping. – sehe Feb 1 '13 at 23:04

Not all verbs have infinitives. From Wikipedia:

Defective verbs

The modal auxiliary verbs, can, may, shall, will and must are defective in that they do not have infinitives; so, one cannot say, *I want him to can do it, but rather must say, I want him to be able to do it. The periphrases to be able to, to have to and to be going to are generally used in these cases.

share|improve this answer

I think the closest thing to an infinitive to can is to be able to

Check out this link of conjugations.

share|improve this answer

Modals are their own unique creatures and do not take infinitive or gerund forms; that is, unless you are e.e. cummings. Only he would put syntax together with such grammatical constructions as "And she to should and he shoulding under the covers of a dream."

share|improve this answer

I agree with one of the above posts--that the closest to conceptualizing an infinitive is "to be able." We can confirm this by looking to any of the Romance languages to which English is closely related. For example, to express "can" in French (je peux parler l'anglais=I can speak English), we would use the infinitive pouvoir, "to be able to."

share|improve this answer
The problem with your logic is that pouvoir is not a "defective verb" in the way that [can] is in English. This is the problem with trying to prove something about language X with evidence from language Y -- they are two separate languages, common roots notwithstanding. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 4 '13 at 8:18
Yup. And wikipedia was quick to suggest the periphrasis. Anyways, I'd been using that all my life, so that was also a bit of a moot point. – sehe Feb 4 '13 at 8:21

The modal verbs can, may, and must have the same infinitive form, them self unchanged.

share|improve this answer
Sorry, but this seems both inaccurate and not adding much to the conversation. Perhaps you wanted to comment instead. (I think you have to earn some reputation to be able to comment) – sehe Feb 2 '13 at 12:20

Yeah no everyone above is wrong.

Can, may, and must have infinitives, but they are not used in modern English anymore.

"Can" comes from an archaic Middle English verb cunnen, connen.

share|improve this answer
You're basically arguing that everybody is wrong because another, related, language has infinitives? I mean, we have "kunnen" in Dutch too, but I don't think it's relevant, though it's clearly related. – sehe Apr 15 '14 at 12:37
No, this answer is simply put 100% wrong. Can, may, and must do not have infinitives in Modern English. The fact that they used to have infinitives in earlier stages of the language (and must as a present tense never did—when the infinitive was still used, must was the past tense) is completely irrelevant to Modern English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 '14 at 13:48

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:38

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.