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"You can [not go] to school."

Can this sentence mean that you can stay here and not go, or does it automatically become a negative sentence if I say it like this?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Mari-Lou A, Dan Bron, deadrat, Mitch Jul 23 '15 at 12:51

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  • Every sentence with a "not" in it is negative. I suppose you are really asking if "can not" means the same as "cannot". To which the answer is no, it does not. But for best results, you'll remove all confusion altogether by rewording. "You are free not to go to school." Or whatever. – RegDwigнt Jul 22 '15 at 12:17
  • If you say "You can not go to school", or cannot, or can't, it means you are prohibited from going to school (in previous decades, we used to reserve can for ability and may for permission, but that distinction has faded over the years, and now may has almost disappeared from contemporary American English). The sentence says nothing about what you can do. It gives no license for skipping school, and no invitation to stay home. It's a command. – Dan Bron Jul 22 '15 at 12:19
  • You can change it from a command to a suggestion by adding "if you prefer" to it, such as "if you prefer, you can not go to school", or "You can not go to school if you prefer.", or even "You can, if you prefer, not go to school." That has the effect of separating the "can" from the "not" and gives the ability (can) to not do something (not). – Majenko Jul 22 '15 at 12:21
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    "cannot" and "can't" are a definite "You are unable (or not allowed) to do this". "can not" can be either "You can't do this", or "You have the ability to abstain from doing this" - a subtle but distinct difference depending on context. – Majenko Jul 22 '15 at 12:22
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    @RegDwigнt Every sentence with a "not" in it is negative - not so old bean. See my answer below ... :) – Araucaria Jul 22 '15 at 13:47
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  1. You can not go to school.

It's perfectly possible to use the sentence above to mean that not going to school is a possible option. Notice that usually the word cannot is written as one word. This anomaly is probably not an accident. Usually if we have an auxiliary that is not contracted with the negative word not, the auxiliary is not stressed, the stress falls on the word not. Notice that this isn't the case when we say cannot. The stress here falls on the first syllable, in other words on the auxiliary:

  • You cannot go to school.

Compare this with, for example, with have:

  • I've not finished yet.
  • I have not finished yet.

When there's no contraction, the stress is standardly applied to the negative particle not; not to the auxiliary.

Now if we wish to negate the following verb instead of the auxiliary can, so that we mean that there's an option to not do something, all we need to do is stress the word not instead of the word can:

  • You can not go.

Now if we were very strict about writing cannot as one word instead of two, then we would not need to use italics when we were writing such sentences to indicate the stress here. We could just use two words can not. However, we aren't all that strict about it at all, and so in order to not be misunderstood it is probably best to use italics when writing to highlight the marked pronunciation.

Now, the Original Poster wisely asked if using a sentence like the above will negate the whole sentence instead of just the verb go. The answer is that it won't. We might think that the sentence is negated, purely on the basis of the lexical verb being negated. This isn't the case. We can do a test here to establish the polarity of the sentence. Usually a negative sentence will take a positive question tag and vice versa:

  • You've eaten it, haven't you? (positive sentence, negative tag)
  • You haven't seen it, have you? (negative sentence, positive tag)

If we stick a tag on a normal sentence where can is negated we will see a positive tag:

  • You can't do it, can you? (negative sentence, positive tag)

However, if we negate the lexical verb do in this example, instead, by using marked stress, then we get the following result:

  • You can not do it though, can't you?

Here we see a negative tag, which is a clear sign that the sentence has a positive polarity when the lexical verb is negated.

Of course this is one option open to a writer, if the genre and style aimed for will allow it. They can just stick a tag on the question:

  • You can not go, can't you!

Arguably, however, it might still be best to use italics here to prevent the reader from having to reread the sentence.

  • +1, nice post! :) . . . aside: There might be a post somewhere on the differences between "can't" and "cannot" and "can not"; though not sure if it is on one of these sites. – F.E. Jul 22 '15 at 18:15
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    Maybe also: "You [can not] go to school, can you?" and ""You can [not go to school], can't you?". And there's also: "You cannot [not go to school], can you?" – F.E. Jul 22 '15 at 18:19
  • @F.E. Yes, that last ones interesting ... but I might be too tired to do it... :) But you could edit it in if you'd like! :D – Araucaria Jul 22 '15 at 22:13
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With suitable prosody, "You can not go to school" could mean "You are able not to go to school". But it is ambiguous, and without special stress it would probably be interpreted as "You cannot go to school".

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