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What is the origin and meaning of the phrase can you not? To my ear, it has an archaic tone, but searches yield entries in the urban dictionary, along with one quote from Sense and Sensibility. Its twisted syntax, potential ambiguity, and indirectness intrigue me. Part of my language heritage is from Irish American, so I also wonder if this hints at its source.

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2 Answers

In addition to FumbleFingers' answer, there's the more sarcastic meaning of "can you not": that is, "please don't", as in, "Can you not play the piano so loud in the middle of the night?". In fact, this is how I parsed your question until I read the other answer (needless to say, I was surprised to apparently learn that Sense and Sensibility had such a hip style). I don't know how this version came to be, except through the usual method of sarcastically twisting a very weak statement, literally meaning "Do you potentially have the capability not to...", into a strong one.

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I hardly think there's anything unusual going on there. It's quite common to use slightly archaic/formal phrasing when being sarcastic. As an example, I kinda think "I hardly think" qualifies on that score! :) –  FumbleFingers Sep 2 '11 at 21:53
    
@FumbleFingers: What's your point? I didn't say it was unusual. –  Ryan Reich Sep 2 '11 at 23:45
    
Well, my point was that it's hardly much of an "answer" to highlight the fact that "Can you not do that?" might be a sarcastic/rhetorical question. But you're getting upvotes for it, so good luck to you! :) –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 2:52
    
@FumbleFingers: The sarcastic meaning is different from a twisting of the usual meaning. You can't, for example, say "Can't you do that?" and mean the same as saying "can you not do that" sarcastically. You could, of course, say "Can't you do that?" sarcastically to mock someone for not being able to "do that", but that is not the same as what I described at all. The OP seems to be curious about "potential ambiguity", and my "answer" identifies one such. –  Ryan Reich Sep 3 '11 at 3:17
    
Hmm. I think the primary nuance of "Can you not do that?" as a rhetorical question actually comes from the fact that it's a dated/formal construction, conveying superiority/condescension (even more so with "could" instead of "can", perhaps). My gut feeling is that dated/formal phrasing is a common device for put-downs. As in "Mind your manners, young lady!" as said to a recalcitrant daughter, for example. So I don't think it's peculiar to OP's particular phrase. But like I say, you've got the upvotes, so you must be on to something. –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 12:12
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I don't see why OP should think we need to find an 'origin' for such a standard construction.

Increasingly, people avoid using a negating not at the end of a sentence, as shown by this NGram, but I wouldn't go so far as to call the usage 'archaic'. A little 'dated', or 'formal', perhaps, since the modern style is generally more informal. People are more likely to say/write "Can't you" today, but it really is just a matter of style.

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Amusingly, I added "can't you" and "can not you" to your nGram link. "Can't you" peaks higher than all the samples you listed, but the non-contracted form "can not you" is flatlined at or near zero –  horatio Sep 2 '11 at 16:28
    
@horatio I suggest you try cannot rather than can not. –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 2 '11 at 16:49
    
of course, you are correct. that is lower than has he not (the green line) –  horatio Sep 2 '11 at 17:27
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