I am a student in China learning American English.

I have listened to some videos and found it hard to distinguish can from can’t. I am looking for some advice that may help me.

  • Try going through the treasure house of past questions on this site first. You can use the 'Search' box at the top. – Kris Aug 7 '14 at 5:41

"Can" is usually pronounced /kən/ (with a schwa sound): as in "I can (/kən/) ride a bike". It is treated as a function word and as such, is unstressed.

"Can't" is pronounced /kænʔ/ (with a glottal stop replacing an expected /t/ sound) as in: "But, I can't (/kænʔ/) ride a horse."

The distinction for the listener is the unstressed schwa (/ə/) in "can" and the fully stressed /æ/ in "can't".

The exception to this is when "can" is at the end of a sentence: "Can (/kən/) you ride a bike?" "Yes, I can." (/kæn/). In this position "can" is stressed and is pronounced: /kæn/.

The negative response would be: "No, I can't." (/kænʔ/), pronounced (/kænt/) in careful speech.

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  • Tks for your help – user3724939 Aug 7 '14 at 6:26
  • 3
    In many American dialects, including my own, stressed can does not rhyme with man, but with pen. I.e, Yes, I can! is pronounced /yɛsay'kɛn/. This means that stressed can and can't use different vowels, just like unstressed can and can't – John Lawler Aug 7 '14 at 13:41
  • Here: ʔ Now you have no excuse to use question marks as an approximation. – EMBLEM Apr 8 '15 at 21:56
  • @EMBLEM I've proposed an edit with your fix. – marcus Feb 9 '17 at 12:17

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