I can never win.


I can't ever win.

Can these be used interchangeably? Is there a case where one would work and the other wouldn't?

  • 4
    Yes. They both mean the same thing (I can not ever win) and they are both formed by contraction of the not, with one crucial difference: I can never win contracts not and ever, while I can't ever win contracts not and can. Dec 18, 2014 at 21:45

4 Answers 4


Grammatically, they are absolutely interchangeable. Any advantage in one over the other would be a question of style.

In I can never win, the "n" in "never" stands for the negative "not". In I can't ever win, the "n't" in "can't" stands for the same negative "not". The effective statement in both formulas is the negative I can not win with "ever" modifying "win" as an adverb.


"never" is a simple statement of fact, whereas "not ever" says that it is a stronger command or statement.

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage! This answer is a useful addition to clarify the implications of the word choice, however it would be improved by elaboration and citing sources if possible. It's a bit short and vague at the moment. Mar 4, 2016 at 11:14
  • You also need to address the actual examples given, which don't include 'not ever'. If you're claiming that one formulation adds emphasis, the exact nature of the expression becomes important. Mar 4, 2016 at 11:45

"I can't ever and I can never" are the same and used interchangebly. Their meaning is the person never does that action, or he never repeats it. Just no hope at all.

  • 1
    You contrast "I can't ever" and "I can never". But the OP contrasts "I can't ever win" and "I can never win". One issue you don't address is that "I can never win" can be parsed as "I can [never win]". Parsed that way, "I can never" is not a constituent.
    – Rosie F
    Apr 26, 2020 at 8:40

In the meaning that you probably intend, 1. is your better choice because it is the action of the active verb (can) that is negated.

Not, ever, and never are all adverbs

In broad terms:

In sentences with a modal verb, "not" follows - and negates - the modal verb (because that is the active verb). But "never" precedes the verbs it qualifies it -"I never can win." > "I can never win."


He can see the ship.

He can not see the ship.

These comment on his ability to see the ship.

He can always see the ship.

He can never see the ship.

These comment on his ability to see. (He might [always] be able to hear or smell the ship.)

In your example:

1 I can never win. = I am able {at no time to win}. – My winning is impossible – the “never” qualifies “win”

2 I can't ever win. = I can not ever win. = I {am not able} at any time to win. – My ability is lacking. The “not” qualifies “can”.

Compare with

I {can easily} win -> My winning {will be done without much effort.}

I can {win easily} -> My ability is such that {I can beat the others by a large margin.}

  • Doesn't "I am able {at no time to win}" rather mean "My not winning is possible"? That is, you have the ability to act in such a way that you don't win?
    – Rosie F
    Apr 26, 2020 at 8:36
  • The nuance is subtle, but the answer to your question is "No." We must concentrate on which verb (the modal or the infinitive) is negated.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 26, 2020 at 8:38
  • I thought that that was the point of your distinction: that in your 1., "win" is negated, so the sentence means that I have the ability to not win ever; in your 2., "can" is negated, so the sentence means that I forever lack the ability to win. Have I misunderstood you?
    – Rosie F
    Apr 26, 2020 at 8:44
  • In the examples, not follows, and qualifies, "can". "Never" precedes, and qualifies, "win". "Can not" emphasises the inability; "never win" emphasises the impossibility of winning.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 26, 2020 at 21:47

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