You know the phrase that's usually said in a sing-song manner? Which is the correct one?

I only ever hear it in spoken form, so I'm not sure if I'm mishearing it.

Also, is there a comma in this phrase? Like "No, can do" or "No, can't do"

  • 5
    I've never heard of "no can't do." "no can do" means I can't do that.
    – CDM
    Jan 26, 2016 at 0:28
  • Definitely "No can do" is the idiom. It's not typically said in a "sing-song" but with an imperative voice. And there's no comma.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 26, 2016 at 2:43
  • I have always analysed this as "there is no 'can do' available".
    – user86291
    Jan 26, 2016 at 11:23
  • @HotLicks, video?
    – Pacerier
    Apr 19, 2018 at 8:20
  • @Pacerier - If you can do it with video, more power to you!
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 19, 2018 at 11:48

4 Answers 4


This is a literal English translation of the Chinese 不可以 (不 = No, 可以 = Can/Yes) which means "Cannot". When 不可以 is translated directly to English it ends up as "No can do" which was originally used by Chinese immigrants to Western countries in their attempt to speak English by directly translating words from their own language into English.

  • 4
    Good answer if you can provide some references as substantiation of this.
    – TrevorD
    Feb 4, 2017 at 23:54

"No can do" means "I can not do that", and there is an implication "It might be possible, but I'm not willing to try." It does not have a comma. I think the phrasing is meant to imply simplified English, as if speaking to a non-native speaker.

"No, can't do" is not in common usage.


The phrase was originally a way to mock Chinese people, according to Oxford Dictionaries.

The widespread use of the phrase in English today has obscured its origin: what might seem like folksy, abbreviated version of I can’t do it is actually an imitation of Chinese Pidgin English. The phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, an era when Western attitudes towards the Chinese were markedly racist.

—Adeshina Emmanuel, Common Words and Phrases That Have Seriously Racist Roots (April 10, 2016)

  • What's the cause of <can> instead of <can't>?
    – Pacerier
    Apr 19, 2018 at 8:24
  • 1
    The link to "Oxford Dictionaries" is an image. May 9, 2019 at 2:41
  • 2
    This answer consists of an excerpt from a blog post by Adeshina Emmanuel, which itself consists mainly of an excerpt from an Oxford Dictionaries blog post by Taylor Coe. Coe argues that the word came into English as "an imitation of Chinese Pidgin English" (rather than simply as an attempt to replicate the wording that native English speakers heard on their travels), and Emmanuel takes that a step further by asserting that the point of the imitation was to "mock Chinese people." Neither blogger offers any direct evidence of the motives of early native English speakers' use of the phrase.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 28, 2019 at 8:05

No(-) can(+) do implies someone is not able to do something.

No(-) can(+)not(-) do implies that whatever he or she is doing is impossible not to do.

There is no comma in this phrase.

  • I know this is old, but I find it funny that you're trying to apply English grammar and formal logic to a broken English phrase that came from mistranslation from a foreign language. In many languages, double negative resolves to negative, and so might a mistranslation from them to English. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_negative (although Chinese is apparently not one of them)
    – NeatNit
    Jul 9, 2023 at 18:41

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