I recently heard a sentence: "Wow, can you not?" A friend stated that it was missing a verb. I said that Can worked as the verb in that sentence, and then he responded that Can could be used as a Main Verb but in this usage it was an Auxiliary. So, is "Can you not" an elliptical construction or a complete sentence?


If the other speaker in the conversation expresses an inability to do something, it is unnecessary to repeat what it was. Can you not? is enough. Yes, this is an example of ellipsis, in which elements of an utterance can be recovered from some other part of the discourse. That doesn’t mean that can becomes a main verb, though. It can never be anything other than a modal auxiliary verb.

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    Eskimos can fish inside their new purpose-built building miles from the sea. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 11 '13 at 9:20
  • Just to point out that there does not need to be any other speakers, or indeed a conversation—in fact, I'd say most commonly there isn't. “Can you not?” simply means, “Please don't do that!”. It's an Internet meme, fairly recent, and similar in elliptical type and status to, “I can't even!”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '13 at 10:59

In the construction "can you not," can is actually be a modal adverb. Modal adverbs are used to describe the state of truth of a verb. "Would," "Could" and "Will" are other examples of modal adverbs.

In this case, the implied sentence is "Can you not [do something]?" Because the verb 'do' is implied, but not actually present, it is an elliptical construction.

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    Could you please point us to any reference labelling 'can' as an adverb? Or one that even mentions 'modal adverbs'? So that we can avoid them. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 11 '13 at 9:18
  • Alas, can is always a modal auxiliary verb (well, the noun can isn't, but that's not at issue here). It must be followed by an infinitive complement clause of some sort; if none is present, one must be supplied by the context. E.g, Can you come tomorrow? Yes, I can (come tomorrow). In the case of a negative question, can, since it's the first auxiliary, virtually always contracts with not to form can't, which then moves to the front as a unit: Can't you come today? No, I can't (come today). Keeping can separate from not, and moving only the modal, produces a strange sentence. – John Lawler Nov 11 '13 at 17:41
  • Yes, the table is unclear: can is 'modal verb' here, not 'adverb'. And I'm trying to get statements such as [modal adverb:] (WIKTIONARY) 'An adverb that qualifies a predicate with respect to the way in which it is true' outlawed; modern classifications I prefer restrict 'adverbs' to 'modifiers of verbs' and would call these modal pragmatic particles / markers. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 11 '13 at 19:59
  • The (undoubted) adverbs always, never, usually, regularly, generally, often, frequently, rarely, sometimes, occasionally given in the table convey frequency, not modality. They modify the verbs they are used with (often next to). Perhaps, maybe, certainly, I would guess that, probably, There's a good chance that... are pragmatic markers of estimated likelihood (ie modal). They often appear at the start of the sentence the speaker/writer is giving his 'likelihood assessment' on. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 11 '13 at 23:58

The term 'sentence' is not well-defined, in that there are different definitions (a 'minor sentence' is not a sentence by most definitions, for instance).

What you say your friend says (it's 'missing a verb') can mean at least three things:

(1) 'It's a statement that may be considered to be formed (by ellipsis of the verb) from "Wow, can you not jet-ski?" say.'

(2) 'It's a statement using a construction sometimes known as a sentence fragment – it's not a traditionally-defined sentence, as it lacks a main verb.'

(3) 'You shouldn't use a statement using a construction that's not a traditionally-defined sentence – a main verb is always required for grammatical acceptability.'

(3), which is quite possibly what is implied here, is wrong.

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