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How to distinguish can & can't from pronunciation?

How do native American English speakers pronounce "can" and "can't" so that these two very similarly sounding words would be distinguishable? Or do native speakers also frequently recheck: "[You said] can or can not?"

  • 4
    I am a native USAite, and I have to ask for clarification on words that end in "n't" all the time, especially during cell phone conversations. It drives me crazy.
    – MT_Head
    Jun 3 '11 at 3:22
  • But I'm still interested in the second part of the question: how often do native American English speakers confuse "can" and "can't" by ear?
    – Leo
    Jun 3 '11 at 3:39
  • 2
    Thinking about it, when I say "I can make it," the accent is on the word make and when I say "I can't make it," the accent is on the work can't. Is this distinction made in British English? If the answer is just "I can" or "I can't", though, there is no difference in the accent. Jun 3 '11 at 4:03
  • 1
    In British English, can't is pronounced kɑnt, which is very easy to distinguish from can.
    – Jez
    Jun 3 '11 at 8:21

I sometimes have to ask for clarification. More conscientious communicators frequently use "cannot", or preface the response with "yes" or "no". For others, white, background noise or plain laziness too frequently obscure the "t" stop.

  • Native speaker of US-English :-)
    – Dynrepsys
    Jun 3 '11 at 4:00

Regarding the second part of the question: From my experience as a native American English speaker, I would say that we virtually never ask for clarification between can and can't. While the words admittedly sound identical in most situations, the context in which they're used makes it clear (to us at least) which word is being said.

  • 1
    In face-to-face conversation, perhaps I would agree with you. Over the phone, however, or when the speaker's back is partly turned to you - in my house, we have a lot of conversations in the kitchen, while one or the other of us is cooking, washing dishes, etc. Very often, I hear every word clearly except the presence or absence of "n't", which of course changes everything...
    – MT_Head
    Jun 3 '11 at 3:57
  • 2
    @MT_Head: Perhaps it should be noted that I'm from the South where we ain't got no fancy electric talkin' machines so our conversations are always face-to-face :) Jun 3 '11 at 4:08
  • Do y'all say "cain't", too? 'Cause that'd sho nuff be easy to tell from "can"... ;)
    – MT_Head
    Jun 3 '11 at 4:40
  • Just now, in the kitchen (washing dishes), I had to ask my girlfriend to clarify: had she just asked whether the baby did or didn't wake up while she was out?
    – MT_Head
    Jun 3 '11 at 4:54

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