Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

afford means

"to have enough money or time to be able to buy or to do something".

Why is it used with "can"? Why don't people simply say "I don't afford it" instead of "I can't afford it"?

As you can see, "being able to" is hidden in the meaning of "afford". So it seems redundant to me to use it with "can".

To me, "I cannot afford this car" means "I am not able to have enough money to be able to buy this car". But "I don't afford this car" makes more sense to me since it means "I do not have enough money to be able to buy this car".

share|improve this question
For one thing, the dictionary seems to provide the "to be able to buy or to do something" part more as a helpful additional information than as the definition itself: "to have enough money or time," so you are not left wondering "enough for what?" --> "to be able to" is not inherent in the definition and needs to be explicitly stated when using afford. –  Kris Nov 18 '13 at 6:41
There is a difference between having enough money to buy something and being able to afford it. For example if I have $100 I have enough money to go to a nice restaurant, but I can't afford to go because I need to pay my electric bill with that money. –  Jim Nov 18 '13 at 6:42
@Jim Yes. But it doesn't help answer the question. –  Kris Nov 18 '13 at 6:43
@Kris- I didn't write it as an answer. But it does draw out the distinction between having enough money to be able to and actually choosing to do so. –  Jim Nov 18 '13 at 6:44
@Kris It's not "a helpful additional information". I checked another dictionary and it was part of the main meaning there too. –  Meysam Nov 18 '13 at 7:32
show 2 more comments

5 Answers

The meaning of afford we are considering here is that which the OED gives as its fifth definition: ‘To manage to give; to spare (time, room, money, etc.)’.

That, by its nature, is not something we do or don’t do. It’s something we are able or unable to do. When we try to substitute spare for afford, we encounter the same problem. We don’t say of something expensive *‘I don’t spare money for it’ any more than we say *’I don’t afford it’.

share|improve this answer
How can the OED's definition be logical? Its adjective 'affordable' is gradable. We speak of something being 'more' or 'less affordable'.So 'afford' as a verb surely has to be gradable. It is not a hard and fast matter as to whether something can be afforded. Many people could afford a Rolls Royce, for example, if they were prepared to sell the roof over their heads to do so. 'Afford' must be something ultimately which we choose to do, not which is extraneously governed as the OED suggests. Because it is uncommon to say 'I will not afford that any longer' does not mean it is wrong. –  WS2 Nov 18 '13 at 11:59
And if 'afford' means 'manage to give', as the OED would have us believe, how do people 'spend money which they can't afford'? –  WS2 Nov 18 '13 at 12:03
Just because you spend the money doesn't mean you can actually spare it. If you can't actually spare it, you simply go over-budget or in to debt. I'd also argue that afford as defined here is perfectly reasonable. I can spare a $50 dollars to buy an item. If I only have $50 to spare though, then I can only barely do it. If I have $5000 to spare then I can easily spare the $50. –  Doc Nov 18 '13 at 15:17
"I can 'manage to give' $50" -> "I can afford $50" is the typical use of the word. The use of 'do' is acceptable but is a less used formulation. "I do 'manage to give' $50" is fine, but how often do people make a statement like that? I can afford my car payment every month, and I do afford my car payment every month are both acceptable and used but have subtle differences in meaning. –  Doc Nov 18 '13 at 15:23
@Doc But we are not discussing the meaning of 'spare'. We are discussing 'afford'. And if the OED insists it means 'manage to give', how is it that someone who 'couldn't manage to give $50', actually gave $50? For that is the inevitable logic of 'spending more than you can afford', if 'afford' means what the OED says it does. 'Afford', in my view simply means 'give' which parallel's its other meaning, as in 'affording someone a common courtesy'. –  WS2 Nov 18 '13 at 17:12
show 1 more comment

The premise of the topic is false. "Afford" is not always accompanied by "can." In the sense of this meaning, "to make available; provide" (Am. Her. Dict., 4e: def. 4), its use in this sentence is straightforward: "A walk in the woods on a beautiful autumn afternoon affords me great pleasure."

Granted, this does not resolve the question of why "afford" is accompanied by "can" in the sense of capability of giving up something of value, whether monetary or otherwise.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Can means to be able to.

Able means you have the necessary power, skill, resources, or qualifications.

Therefore, when you say "I can't afford it", it means that you don't have the capacity to afford it even if you want to.

On the other hand, when you say "I don't afford it", which I really don't hear most of the time, means you are not performing it and you don't want to afford it, even if you have the capacity.

share|improve this answer
Your misuse of the word affords me the chance of correcting you. You might be able to say, “My finances don’t afford me the ability to pay for this,” but “I don’t afford it” is incorrect. –  J. C. Salomon Nov 19 '13 at 23:02
add comment

In your native language, we use: "او نتوانست از پس هزینه‌ها برآید". It is very common here too.

I'm not really good at English but i think it's logical to use "can" here. I see it as if someone can't be able to achieve or manage or buy (afford) something even if he tries. For example when i say "I can't afford this car" means I can't be able to buy this car, even if i work 12 hours daily or ... So subject of ability in afford is having money and subject for ability in can't is doing anything to reach that ability, implicitly albeit.

And i searched for "I don't afford". I saw use cases are mostly related to situations which people want say that inability is temporal or they didn't put much energy on it.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Simply because 'I don't afford it' means something else. It is no different to 'I can't run', versus 'I don't run'.

share|improve this answer
Wonder what that 'something else' could be? –  Kris Nov 18 '13 at 6:34
@Kris It is not common, but I have certainly heard it used. 'Since the prices increased I don't bother to afford a daily newspaper any longer'. You could also say 'She didn't afford me any courtesy whatever'. –  WS2 Nov 18 '13 at 7:20
Your last example has a different meaning though, but it successfully illustrates that afford can be used with the auxiliary, do. You should expand your answer to better illustrate your explanation. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 18 '13 at 9:01
@Mari-LouA You will see my comments on Barrie England's answer below. Now that Barrie has answered thus, with the backing of the OED, I am just as perplexed as the OP as to why we only use 'afford' with 'can' or 'can't'. The OP has spotted a thoroughly illogical use of the English language and deserves credit for that. –  WS2 Nov 18 '13 at 12:17
It's not illogical at all, it's all to do with capacity but not always. Opportunities are afforded to us, for example. This question is still bugging me. I have the answer in my head, I'm just finding it a challenge to give a clear, unambiguous explanation. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 2 '13 at 8:45
show 1 more comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

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