According to englishpage.com, if have to or must expresses certainty, the negative form uses must not. Example:

That has to be Jerry. They said he was tall with bright red hair.
=> That must not be Jerry. They said he has blond hair, not red hair.

I learned that must not expresses prohibition (and this case is also listed there) and I've never encountered an exception so far. So, it sounded funny to me and I asked a native English speaker. She's of the opinion that this usage of must not is not right, but she's only sure about British English.

  • Is this usage of must not just wrong?
  • Or is it correct for a certain variation of English? American English, for instance?
  • Or was it correct in former times and nowadays considered archaic?

EDIT: Many, if not all, answers state that the proper use is can't. This, however, is not my question. Furthermore, some answers elaborated on the proper meaning of must not in the sense of "not allowed to do". This isn't my question either. I must be aware (no pun intended) of the proper meaning of must not, otherwise I wouldn't have noticed this 'error'.

I don't know nothing about the author of that page but, in dubio pro reo, I assume that they know what they talk about.

  • That doesn't have to be Jerry.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 12, 2015 at 3:45
  • And he must not have to use the loo.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 12, 2015 at 3:46
  • There are two ways to negate a modal. Say the modal is Necessary, like must or have to, and the negative is Not. Then they can combine into Not Necessary (like don't have to) or into Necessary Not (like must not). That's one of the reasons why we have modal paraphrases to go with our modal auxiliary verbs. This, btw, is independent of the Deontic / Epistemic distinction; it's part of the utter strangeness of the modal system in English. Feb 15, 2015 at 21:22
  • There is nothing wrong with the use of must in your quoted example. It's fine in contemporary English. Your informant who says it's "not right" is wrong.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 15, 2015 at 21:54

6 Answers 6


While I agree that "that can't be Jerry" is idiomatic, there are times when we do use "must not".

Let's say you're watching a murder mystery. You get clue after clue, and eventually come to suspect that a particular character is the villain, let's say it's the pharmacist. But then a new clue surfaces, which seems to point suspicion elsewhere. You can say:

So, it must not be the pharmacist.

The phrase above is spoken tentatively, with a questioning intonation, because you are only coming to believe something but are not quite certain.

When you do become certain that the pharmacist is not the murderer (e.g. he's having an affair with the mayor, and they were in Las Vegas at the time, and the two of them are clearly visible on the security TV tapes of the casino at the time of the murder), then you can say:

So, it can't be the pharmacist!

  • 3
    I don’t quite follow your example—especially the apparent emphasis on be throws me off, so I can’t quite figure out what effect and tone of voice you’re going for … But more than that, I find “That must not be Jerry, then” a perfectly natural and normal sentence, provided that must is completely unstressed, and not is stressed. Similar to “I’ve never seen that before!” — “Well, you must not have been looking very hard, then, ’cause it’s been there all along.” Feb 11, 2015 at 21:07
  • 1
    In my dialect, the "aha" is reflected by the stress being placed on "be" rather than on "not" where it might be expected to fall. In my dialect, for a person to say "So, that must not be Jerry" would indicate that it was dawning on the speaker that it wasn't Jerry. And you're right, "must" would receive no stress at all in that case.
    – TRomano
    Feb 11, 2015 at 23:32
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Are you saying that "That must not be Jerry" (with the meaning "that can't be him") and "you must not have been looking very hard" (with the meaning "you probably didn't look very hard) sounds natural to you? Most, if not all answers, imply that this usage would be wrong; though nobody so far claimed that it indeed were wrong. I'm still waiting for some response that someone is certain that it is wrong or not, for that matter. So, do you say that it is not wrong? May I ask what variation of English you speak?
    – Em1
    Feb 12, 2015 at 22:11
  • 1
    @Em1 Yes, I say it's not wrong. It's not as common (nor as natural) as can’t would be, but there's nothing wrong with it. Googling around for some likely phrases with that kind of construction, I found a few quotes from movies and interviews where people were definitely using it in this sense. I'm dialectally confused between BrE and AmE, so I don't know if this works in both or only one of them. Definitely works for me in AmE, though. (See also Jim’s answer which agrees.) Feb 12, 2015 at 22:13
  • @TRomano So, does "it must not be the pharmacist" mean "It still may be him, but it doesn't must be him"
    – Em1
    Feb 12, 2015 at 22:14
  1. That has to be Jerry.
  2. That must be Jerry.
  3. That can't be Jerry.

DEONTIC modality is about what people think is good or right to do or not do. EPISTEMIC modality is basically about what we know. We indulge in it when we make judgements about what is, may, or cannot be true.

Epistemic modality

The Original Poster's example involves the epistemic use of HAVE TO:

  • That has to be Jerry.

Here the speaker is saying something along the lines of: from the evidence available I'm deducing that that's definitely Jerry. As far as epistemic modality is concerned, we could get more or less the same reading from the use of must:

  • That must be Jerry.

Now there's two ways that we might want to negate this statement. We might want to say that it is not necessarily the case that that is Jerry. Technically we could say this by negating the HAVE TO sentence:

  • That doesn't have to be Jerry!

However, this sounds pretty strange in English and we would probably only say this if we were contradicting someone who said That has to be Jerry. A more natural sentence would be something like That's not necessarily Jerry. Or even That might be Jerry. The last sentence doesn't have the same flavour, but actually boils down to the same thing.

On the other hand there is a completely different way to negate this sentence. We may want to reverse the judgement itself but keep the definitiveness involved in the original HAVE TO sentence. In other words we might want to say that that is necessarily not Jerry according to our evidence. When dealing with negative epistemic statements like this, we do not like to use mustn't to rule out a possibility. We have also already seen that doesn't have to means not necessarily - it doesn't mean necessarily not which is what we are after. We need to use can't or cannot here. So a negation of That has to be Jerry in terms of saying that it is necessarily not Jerry might be phrased thus:

  • That can't be Jerry!

Deontic modality

When we move from epistemic modality to deontic modality however, the situation is not the same. Again we see a rough equivalence between MUST and HAVE TO:

  • You have to leave the area.
  • You must leave the area.

Again if we want to say that something is not necessary, we can use not have to:

  • You don't have to leave the area.

But if we want to say that it's necessary that you don't do something we use mustn't:

  • You mustn't leave the area.

Notice that we couldn't really achieve the same meaning using mustn't when dealing with epistemic modality. In that situation we used cannot or can't. We can use the same thing here too, although the sentence may be ambiguous:

  • You can't leave the area.


We use HAVE TO and MUST for both deontic and epistemic necessity. However, to express a lack of necessity we use not have to. With epistemic judgements we are most likely to use can't to express that a proposition is necessarily not true. With deontic judgements we use mustn't to express that something necessarily not be done.

The example from the EFL site in the Original Poster's example is a bit strange for many readers. The reason is it uses mustn't for epistemic modality where we would expect can't. This does, having corresponded with some US speakers here, seem to be more specifically the case in GB English.

Hope this is helpful!

Edit note on epistemic mustn't

Notice that I said above that we do not "like to" use mustn't to rule out a possibility.

I didn't say that we can't. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language Huddleston & Pullum et al 2002, state that although we sometimes use mustn't epistemically, it ...

... is quite rare and restricted (indeed unacceptable for many speakers): in negative contexts must and need are usually interpreted deontically. (pp. 180-1)

The thrust of this is that some speakers will just not give mustn't an epistemic reading, but that some other speakers do use it - although only in restricted environments.

Several writers here who speak varieties of US English have said that they believe this is much more acceptable in US English than it is in British English. It seems highly likely, therefore, that there is a difference in the acceptability of mustn't for epistemic modality between British and American Englishes.

Thank you to F.E. and JanusBahsJacquet for their input, and direction to relevant sources here.

  • Have a look at Jim’s answer, too—there's more to this story than meets the eye, it would seem. The fact that you (BrE) quite categorically speak against epistemic must not, while Jim (AmE) speaks for it convinces me that the part of my brain that thinks this is a perfectly natural and fine construction must be the AmE part. And also that Jim is correct in deeming this a Br-Am difference, which I for one never knew it was. Feb 12, 2015 at 22:51
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Hmm, have done some rummaging and got some advice from both you and F.E. and there does indeed seem to be a bit a pond thing here. Am also going to add some stuff from CaGEL to clarify about the BE. I originally put don't like to in the body, but waas less equivocal in the conclusion. There are times when we use this in BE, although it's much rarer. Thanks for the input! :-) Feb 15, 2015 at 15:31
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Does the above seem better to you now? Feb 15, 2015 at 16:04
  • 1
    Absolutely! (I can't stop getting that damn Beyoncé song stuck in my head every time I see this question now, argh!) Feb 15, 2015 at 20:56

This is a British-English/US-English issue:

Not OK in UK
Cambridge sounds the high alarm in English Grammar Today

Warning: We use can’t/cannot as the negative of must to deny something or make negative deductions or conclusions:

It just can’t be true. He can’t have left his job.

That cannot be his sister. She looks so different.

But us rebels use must not for probably not or logic implies it can't be/is unlikely:

Song: You must not be drinking enough

Tweet: This must not be her first time getting her ass whooped by him.

Restaurant review “Must not be what it used to be” ... I went to Josephines this past week and was shocked to see how in the past month things could go from good to terrible.

  • 1
    This is exactly the usage I had in mind in my comment on TRomano’s answer. To my mind, must not and cannot differ slightly in meaning: with must not, circumstances prove positively that it is only possible that X is not the case; with cannot, circumstances prove negatively that it is not possible that X is the case. “He can't have left yet” = it is not possible he has left yet. “He must not have left yet” = it must be that he has not left yet. Amounting to the same thing, but still meaning slightly different things. Feb 12, 2015 at 22:23
  • 1
    Also—and how odd nobody’s thought of this before—Beyoncé. Feb 13, 2015 at 1:09
  • I have a new song in my head: with must not, circumstances prove positively that it is only possible that X is not the case; with cannot, circumstances prove negatively that it is not possible that X is the case. O.O Feb 13, 2015 at 4:37

I can hardly resist posting the quaintly self-referential statement

must [= logical necessity] cannot normally be used in interrogative or negative clauses

apparently from A comprehensive grammar of the English language (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, Svartvik, 1985). I haven't got the book, sadly, and this is a quotation found online in English Corpus Lingustics (Aijmer, Altenberg, 2014), p. 156; the latter also somewhat disputes the statement, leaning on usage of American undergraduates, who tend to occasionally use must not epistemically.

The modality in the example sentence is epistemic (expressing how certain the speaker is of the statement):

  • That has to be Jerry. (That must be Jerry.)
  • (normal) opposite That cannot be Jerry.

As opposed to a deontic use of 'must':

  • You must wear gloves (it's cold).
  • (negation) You need not wear gloves (it's quite warm).
  • (opposite) You must not wear gloves (you'll need your fingers).

Exactly as you say, must not in the second set of statements expresses a prohibiton. (Normally...) Normality is exactly what I'd expect in the context of grammar examples at englishpage.com.


That must not be Jerry

This usage suggests that I may be wrong (i.e. I'm not 100% confident it's Jerry). It can also suggest that I am expressing agreement to something I thought previously not to be the case (ie that must be Jerry after all (contrary to what I first thought))

Compare this to

That can't be Jerry

which expresses my confident opinion. I know about Jerry and this person is not Jerry.


Must not does indeed sound strange in this case.

The switch to must happens in case you actually are talking about an obligation to start with:

You have to sign your name on every page.

Which is equivalent to

You must sign your name on every page.


You don't have to sign your name on every page.

Means that you are allowed to sign, but it's OK if you don't, whereas

You must not sign your name on every page.

Means that it is not OK if you do it!

In the sentence that you used, there is no obligation, but an expectation.

That has to be Jerry! (or, That must be Jerry!)

Means: in all likelihood, based on our information and observations, I'd say there is a very high chance that that person, indeed, is Jerry.

In this case, using must in a negative way sounds off.

That must not be Jerry.

Sounds as if someone that might be Jerry is coming along, but I really have a strong wish that it be someone else. (Maybe he is about to walk in on our preparations for his surprise party). The sentence does not really sound natural though.

That doesn't have to be Jerry.

This would mean that that person we see there might be Jerry, but it might be someone else. Yes, he's tall and his hair is red, but that doesn't mean the first tall redhead we see is Jerry.

To express the opposite of "that has to be Jerry!" in the context that you quoted, a more natural way would be:

No, that can't be Jerry. They said Jerry was blond, this guy's red.

  • As others have clarified, there's absolutely nothing wrong with "That must not be Jerry" on this side of the pond. Also, it means something slightly different than "That can't be Jerry": "must not" implies some level of incredulity and/or uncertainty. (Of course, "can't" isn't 100% certain either -- otherwise, you'd have said "That isn't Jerry" -- and it can be used to imply surprise, too -- "That can't be your daughter, she was just a baby yesterday!" -- so it's all very vague and wishy-washy.)
    – Marthaª
    Mar 3, 2015 at 3:59

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