How would I express my ability not to do something?

"I cannot dig" means that I definitely cannot dig. But how do I express my ability not to dig? The first thing that comes to my mind is "I am able not to dig", but I was wondering if there was a better way to express that.

In essence I want to say something like "I can (not dig)"; parentheses are just for clarification.


Ok, so in order to clear things up, I tried to think of a better example. Lets imagine that I am walking in the park and see some big guy bullying a nerd. In this case I would like to say "I am able not to interfere, but I will!" (or in our case what I would like to say is "I can (not interfere), but I will!").

And someone working in the circus might want to say "I can (not fall) while walking on a narrow plank".

And the main question is - is it possible to express those examples using "can"?

  • 1
    Is "not dig" really what you want to say, or is it just an example? If the latter, what is it that you're actually trying say, and why?
    – Marthaª
    Aug 12 '11 at 13:45
  • It does not matter here. It can be any verb. The question's origin lies in Russian language semantics, where you can say (translated word-by-word) "I can not dig" and "I not can dig". The meaning changes slightly - either I cannot dig completely or I have the ability not to dig. So consider that I want to say "not dig" (or "not run", "not swim", "not work" - any verb suits my needs). As an example - "I can dig and not dig" (meaning that I can do both). And the only correct way to say that is "I can dig as well as I am able not to dig", which sounds... bad :)
    – Jefim
    Aug 12 '11 at 13:55
  • 1
    @Jefim: I also have difficulty understanding what you're trying to say. I just can't think of anyone who doesn't have the ability to "not dig". Aug 12 '11 at 14:00
  • Side question: What about "I cannot not interfere"? The only possible meaning seems to be "I cannot (not interfere)", but is it correct english? Aug 12 '11 at 18:32
  • May I suggest that better examples might be, "I am able to refrain from smoking" or "I am able to not eat (i.e. I am successfully dieting)". The ability to not dig is a little confusing because, as Hendrik points out, the idea of someone who is unable to not dig is a little strained -- the only thing I can think of is some compulsive mental illness. But unable to stop smoking or eating, these are common problems. (A friend of mine, upon hearing upon a class on how to quit smoking, commented that he thought it odd that people needed to take a class on how to not do something. But they do.)
    – Jay
    Feb 6 '12 at 14:51

The usual idiom is "I don't have to dig".

In speech it is possible to express "I can (not dig)" by intonation, but there is no customary way to manage that in writing. *

Edit in response to the edits to the question: in those cases where you really are talking about the ability not to, as opposed to the lack of obligation: no, you will need to use a perphrasis, probably "able not to", as in your example. There isn't an unambiguous way of using "can" for this meaning.

Slightly off topic: the scope of negation can vary a lot between different languages. English "must not" ("obliged not to") is not a translation of German "muss nicht" ("permitted not to").

  • Good and simple answer. "The ability to not do X" is equivalent to "the lack of necessity of doing X". Aug 12 '11 at 13:53
  • I guess that this answers my question. Before marking this as an answer - could you still see my update in the question?
    – Jefim
    Aug 12 '11 at 14:14
  • RE ability vs obligation: I'd add "permission". That's an ambiguity in words like "can" and "must". If you say, "Bob can play Hamlet", do you mean that he is capable of performing the role, or that he has been given permission to play the part in a particular production? If you say, "I must eat this pie", does that mean that you are starving and will die if you do not eat it, or that you do not wish to insult the person who baked it by declining to eat? Etc.
    – Jay
    Feb 6 '12 at 14:57
  • There are valid examples of both permission to decline and ability to decline. E.g. permission: "I must obey the speed limit." But an ambulance driver could say, "I don't have to obey the speed limit." (To use your suggested wording.) Ability: "I will fall if I step off the bridge." But Superman could say, "I don't have to fall if I step off the bridge."
    – Jay
    Feb 6 '12 at 15:13

You could say "I can refrain from digging".

But it depends a lot of what exactly you want to say and why your ability not to dig is in question.


I think the confusion arises from the fact that OP only associates the negating component not with the preceding can. But taking the example verb "interfere", one can analyse it in two ways...

  • I can not interfere. (I am unable to intefere, even though I might want to).

  • I can not interfere. (I have the option of not interfering, if I don't want to).

In speech, the second (far less likely) meaning would be conveyed by placing heavy stress on "not". In writing, it would be italicised. Or, more commonly, just say "I don't have/need to interfere".

  • 1
    Hm. I wonder if this is why "cannot" is one word?
    – wfaulk
    Aug 12 '11 at 16:08
  • @wfaulk: Very likely connected. Of course, usage varies on that one, and we do tend to say (and even write) can't a lot of the time. Aug 12 '11 at 19:27

I'm not really sure I follow your question, but strictly speaking, "can't/cannot" expresses lack of ability to do something whereas "won't/will not" expresses lack of will to do something and "may not" expresses lack of permission.

If you're looking for a word that means the opposite of dig, see here: http://thesaurus.com/browse/dig

  • No, he's asking about the scope of the negation.
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 12 '11 at 14:44
  • Interestingly, the only antonym there seems to be "fill". Rightly or wrongly, I assumed OP meant "dig" in the sense of "really like", so if he had wanted an opposite, it would probably be "loathe", which isn't there. Aug 12 '11 at 19:30

Am I just confused right now, or would I may not dig fit the situation too? Anyone?

  • 2
    "I may not dig" is formally ambiguous just as "I can not dig" is.
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 12 '11 at 14:43

"I need not dig."

While "I don't have to dig" definitely conveys your intent, but I would also consider "I need not dig" as a shorter alternative, which implies that you can if you wanted to but are under no obligation. "I must not dig" implies that you are under obligation not to.


Yes, it's an awkward concept to express, but there are a variety of ways to say it. Let me use "eat" as the example, as I think it's more comprehensible to imagine someone struggling to not eat because he is on a diet, than someone struggling to not "dig".

"I can not eat." Possible but ambiguous. You may be emphasizing your ability to not eat, or you may be emphasizing your inability to eat. In context it may be clear. Like, "I'll bet you can't resist that cake even though you are on a diet." "Oh no, I have the willpower, I can not eat it." Versus, "I see you ate a full dinner, but wouldn't you like some of this cake for desert?" "Oh no, I'm full, I can not eat it."

"I can refrain from eating."

"I am able to not eat." (Or if you insist on not splitting the infinitive, "I am able not to eat." Which you yourself used in the question.)

If the meaning is not clear in a particular context, you can always get wordier:

"I can avoid eating."

"I have the ability to keep myself from eating."

"I have made a deliberate decision to not eat and I am sticking to it."



"Can" means able. "Cannot" (without a space between can and not) measns unable. I think the original poster wants to convey having the ability not to do something.

For example, "We cannot drink the water because it's contaminated with poison" means we are unable to drink the water; whereas, "We can not drink water and live for at least 3 days" means we are able to go without water for some time.

As another example, "I cannot exercise because I broke my ankle while skiing" means I am unable to exercise; whereas, "I can not exercise and still stay slim because I eat healthy" means I am able to stay slim while not exercising.

The original poster wanted a way to convey the ability to not do something using "can."

  • Welcome to ELU, Peter. Please keep in mind that this is not a discussion site: you should post answers only if you, well, know the answer. If you have questions that don't seem to be answered already, please post your own question. (Note, though, that "what do y'all think" type questions are frowned upon as "Not Constructive". See the faq.)
    – Marthaª
    Jan 31 '13 at 4:27
  • While some people have preferences between "cannot" and "can not" for such distinctions, they are not widely understood by English users and cannot has, along with can't has been used as a contraction of can not for about 600years (before Middle English became Modern English). While we could use typographic emphasis with the two word form ("I can not do it".) and while the two word form works better with set phrases and idioms using not like the "not only..." form "He can not only act the part, but can play his character's instrument perfectly", there is no semantic difference.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 1 '13 at 2:02

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