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Let's say we have a sentence as shown below

"Why can't we use X to do Y?"

How would you rewrite it to avoid using a contraction? Typically, we can replace "can't" by "cannot" or "can not;" for instance

  • "She can't find her keys"
  • "She cannot find her keys"
  • "She can not find her keys"

Applied to the first example this would result in

  • "Why cannot we use X to do Y?"

Would the following work?

  • "Why can we not use X to do Y?"

For some reason, this sounds a bit awkward to me (however, I am a non-native speaker, and I don't really trust my gut feeling ;)).

So, wow would you make sentences like "Why can't we use X to do Y?" sound more elegant given that you want to avoid using a contraction?

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    Replacing contractions does not increase elegance of written prose. It merely makes it more boring and official. If that's what you want, go for it. – John Lawler Aug 31 '16 at 14:05
  • I agree, but let's assume this sentence is for a textbook on mathematics that should be somewhat formal but not too formal. – user99042 Aug 31 '16 at 14:08
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    Both "Why cannot we..." and "Why can we not..." are frequently used in more formal writing. They are pretty much the normal approach to removing contractions. Which is more elegant is a matter of opinion. – DJClayworth Aug 31 '16 at 14:12
  • I didn't say it makes it more formal. It doesn't. It indicates that the author wanted to appear formal, wasn't sure how to do it appropriately, decided that contractions must be informal, and therefore removed them. It's a step down from the authoritative command that's necessary for formality. Oh, and *Why cannot we? is ungrammatical. Only contracted auxiliaries can include a negative when inverted with the subject; can't works, but cannot doesn't. – John Lawler Aug 31 '16 at 14:12
  • How might we...? – Doug Warren Aug 31 '16 at 14:20
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If you wish to rewrite a sentence containing a contraction in a way that does not use the contraction, start with replacing the contraction with the phrase it contracts.

She can't find her keys.

This would become:

She cannot find her keys.

This sentence looks fine as it is. If the sentence looks good, there is no need to do more.

Sometimes, though, a sentence rewritten in this way won't read quite right. The example used in the question is a good one.

Why can't we use this to do that?

If we replace the contraction here, we get:

Why cannot we use this to do that?

What's happening here is that the word "not", which is an adverb, is separated from the verb it modifies. Start by splitting "cannot" up into its two contained words ("can" and "not"), then use your normal understanding of English sentence structure to move the word "not" to where it needs to be to modify the verb.

Why can not we use this to do that?

This becomes:

Why can we not use this to do that?

And there you are. The adverb is in the right place now.

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If you really don't want to use contractions, which are actually pretty ok to use in most contexts, how about:

"Might we not use X to do Y?"

Or:

"Could/should we consider using X to do Y?"

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