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Could you tell me which is proper in English:

I don't remember.

I can't remember.

And if both are possible and good English, what is the difference?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

They are both good English, and the difference in actual practice is very slight.

I don't remember means that I once knew, but now I do not. This is less committal, since it sounds as if I am not necessarily trying very hard to remember.

I can't remember means that I once knew, but now I cannot think of it. This is more emphatic, since it sounds as if I am testing the limits of my memory.

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7  
I'm not sure if it's a subset of the distinction you make, but "I don't remember my 21st birthday" probably means nothing exceptional happened, whereas "I can't remember my 21st birthday" probably means you had a lot of celebratory drink! Maybe in some contexts, can't implies that your memory wasn't functioning to full capacity at the time you're trying to remember. –  FumbleFingers Mar 14 '12 at 4:28
    
Wow, very helpful, thank you Daniel –  Jackie Chan Mar 14 '12 at 4:51

They are both good English.

The only difference between them (in my dialect) is that I can't remember indicates that the speaker tried to remember, whereas I don't remember doesn't imply that.

Thus: Can you remember what happened that day? is asking the addressee to try to remember, whereas Do you remember what happened that day? is merely asking him whether he happens to remember.

(This answer is similar to Daniel δ's, but I'm not sure he means what I do.)

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