Is there a difference in meaning and/or connotation between "can not" and "cannot"?

I have read and seen both used interchangeably, but I know people who argue for a slight difference in meaning. That is, cannot indicates that there is an incapability whereas can not indicates the possibility of absence. Is this a real difference?

  • 1
    The linked question does not directly address this matter, but the accepted answer does. Oct 22, 2013 at 20:43
  • Yes, there's a real difference. There's some brief discussion in Zwicky and Pullum's 1983 Cliticization vs. Inflection (page 9 of the PDF), which in turn cites Horn's 1972 dissertation On the semantic properties of logical operators in English.
    – user28567
    Oct 22, 2013 at 20:44
  • @snailboat: They are clearly talking about the two different phonetic realisations, though (as indicated by the fact that they employ stress marks), which do not necessarily correspond neatly to the two different orthographic forms. Oct 22, 2013 at 21:33
  • @JanusBahsJacquet If you read the cited Horn (not available online), you'll see that he asserts there is an orthographic convention distinguishing the two (where can not is ambiguous, but cannot is not).
    – user28567
    Oct 22, 2013 at 21:57

1 Answer 1


Both are acceptable, but cannot is now more common. OED has this much to say about cannot:

the ordinary modern way of writing can not: see CAN v.

Notwithstanding, in some situations ambiguity may arise if you write can not, and the difference might not be a minor one. Compare:

  • I cannot make love to you. (Something is stopping me from it, be it objective or subjective. Put differently: I am not able to make love to you.)
  • I can not make love to you. (Same as above. But also: Reckon with the possibility of my refusing to make love to you. Put differently: I am able to not make love to you.)
  • Btw, I will not often say (ˈkænət,ˈkænɒt); it's almost always (kəˈnɑt) or more emphatically (kæˈnɒt). OED doesn't make a mention of that typically American pronunciation, but some other dictionaries do.
    – Talia Ford
    Oct 22, 2013 at 21:10
  • This is a great answer. If I could offer a little clarification. What Talia is saying is that someones the expression isn't joined in one word because "not" doesn't belong to the "can." In the second sentence the not is attached to "make" rather than "can." it is "I can not-make love" rather than "I can-not make love"
    – Fraser Orr
    Oct 22, 2013 at 22:41
  • @FraserOrr I believe Talia Ford is saying that the second sentence has both interpretations available.
    – user28567
    Oct 22, 2013 at 22:58

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