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Recently I noticed that there are some sentences which contain "can't" that sound wrong when you replace "can't" with "cannot." Here's one example. The sentence

Why can't I do it?

sounds correct. But replacing "can't" with "cannot" yields this sentence

Why cannot I do it?

I don't know if this sentence is breaking any formal grammatical rule but it just sounds very "wrong" to me (and searching for the phrase on google seems to back up the idea that it's very rarely used).

I was fairly surprised when I realized this. I think I had previously assumed that if I take any sentence containing a contraction and expand the contraction then the sentence should remain valid. But that does not seem to be the case in this example.

So here's my question:

Why is this? Did sentences like "Why cannot I do it?" used to sound more normal but they eventually died out while "Why can't I do it?" survived? Is it that "Why can I not do it?" is the proper expansion of the contraction? If so, how did the "not" end up jumping over the "I" to form the contraction? More generally I would appreciate any explanation about the origin of this phenomenon.

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    You might want to edit so that the "real question" is more prominent. To "Why can't I say 'Would not I do it,'" the answer is "because language evolves." But "how exactly did it evolve so that the negation left the main verb and merged with the secondary one"... I'd really love to hear the answer to that one. Sep 21 at 20:36
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    Related, perhaps answers it: Why does "Why doesn't it work?" become "Why does it not work?"
    – livresque
    Sep 21 at 20:37
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    Also, I just found in Wikipedia: "In subject–auxiliary inversion, the contracted negative forms behave as if they were auxiliaries themselves, changing place with the subject. For example, the interrogative form of He won't go is Won't he go?, whereas the uncontracted equivalent is Will he not go?, with not following the subject." Sep 21 at 20:52
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    Basically, whenever anything contracts, it becomes a new word and no longer participates in any syntactic process except as a single word. Sep 21 at 21:22
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    @JohnLawler Thanks, that's a concise way of putting what seems to have happened here. Sep 22 at 23:15
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I would second the answer to this question that points out that constructions analogous to "why cannot I" were common through the 18th century and beyond, so though they sound old-fashioned today, they haven't always been ungrammatical.

But there's no real reason to insist that contemporary English and 18th-century English have to have identical grammar rules. In fact, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p. 91) argues that in contemporary English, can't and won't are independent words that are "negative inflections" of can and will, not true contractions. This argument is based largely on the observation that can't and won't can be used in places where cannot and will not are obsolete. (Negative inflections are uncommon in European languages but exist in other languages such as Japanese: arimasu = "to exist" and arimasen = "to be nonexistent").

Forms like won't are commonly regarded as 'contractions' of will + not, and so on, but there are compelling reasons for analysing them differently from cases like she'll (from she + will), they've (they + have), etc. Won't is, by every criterion, a single grammatical word, an inflectional form of will. She'll is not a single grammatical word, hence not an inflectional form. Rather, 'll (pronounced /l/) is a clitic form of will, i.e. a reduced form that is joined phonologically (and orthographically) to an independent word called its host. The host in the case of she'll is the pronoun she. The written forms she'll, they've, etc., are pronounced as single monosyllabic words phonologically but correspond to two-word sequences syntactically.

Evidence for this analysis is seen in:

[i] Won't/*Will not she be glad? [not replaceable by will not]

[ii] He says she'll read it, but she WON'T/will NOT.

Example [i] shows that won't is not always replaceable by will not (as she'll always is by she will), and in such cases a contraction analysis is not viable. In [ii] the [...] capitals indicate contrastive negation marked by stress. A clitic cannot bear stress (cliticisation is an extreme case of the phonological reduction that is available only for words that are unstressed). Note, for example, that in He says she won't read it, but she WILL, the stress prevents the reduction of she WILL to SHE'LL: if won't involved cliticisation like she'll, therefore, it would not occur with emphatic negation.

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  • Yes, that's a typo, thanks! Fixed. Sep 22 at 22:37
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Before we start, think of how "gonna" and "wanna" arose in English - they are phonetic corruptions of "going to" and "want to". They are relatively common even in writing in which the writer does not intend to mimic speech. The history of can't/cannot is much the same.

New Fowler's Modern English Usage (2000) states

The reduced form can't, which now seems so natural, is relatively recent in origin. It does not occur in the works of Shakespeare, for example, and the earliest example of it given in the OED is one of 1706

In "Negation in English and other Languages" by Jespersen, he comments

In writing the forms in n't make their appearance about 1660 and are already frequent in Dryden's, Congreve's, and Farquhar's comedies. Addison in the Spectator nr. 135 speaks of mayn't, can't, sha'n't, won't, and the like as having "very much untuned our language, and clogged it with consonants". Swift also (in the Tatler nr. 230) brands as examples of "the continual corruption of our English tongue" such forms as cou'dn't, ha'n't, can't, shan't; but nevertheless he uses some of them very often in his Journal to Stella.

You will see the parallel with "gonna" and "wanna"

Jespersen continues:

Cannot becomes can't with a different vowel, long [a:]; Otway 288 writes cannot, but pronounces it in one syllable [to add - can't]. Congreve 268 has can't. In the same way, with additional dropping of [l], shall not becomes [sha'nt] [to add - also with a long vowel]. The spelling was not, and is not yet, settled ; NED. records sha'nt from 1664, shan't from 1675, shann't from 1682 (besides Dryden's shan'not 1668); now both shan't and sha'n't are in use.

(Out of interest, Jespersen then goes on to refer to the lengthened "a" in the tag of "I'm angy, an't I?" in which the "m" is dropped and has given rise to the incorrect "I'm angry, aren't I?"... because that is what it sounds like...)

So, in short, cannot became can't because that is how the majority of people spoke and heard it. However, two spellings and two pronunciations are now accepted. The battle for "correctness" has ended in a compromise.

From the above, and in your example "Why cannot I do it?" I surmise that the "cannot" would have been popularly pronounced "can't" from somewhere in the early 1600s, yet spelled "cannot" and pronounced that way by teachers (who, by-and-large, are conservative.)

You will note that there are no circumstances in which can't may not replace "cannot", but "cannot" looks and sounds more "educated/formal" and may not replace "can't" in all circumstances. This is based on 400 years of pronunciation.

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  • I don't think that cannot is like wanna and gonna.
    – Lambie
    Sep 21 at 22:59
  • Come back in 300 years and we will see what has happened to wanna and gonna. ;)
    – Greybeard
    Sep 30 at 15:41
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Today, not would go immediately before the main verb, so “Why can I not do it?” (or the less ambiguous “Why can I choose not to do it?” or “Why must I not do it?”) sounds more idiomatic to me than “Why cannot I do it?” This was not the case centuries ago, and “Why can’t I” or “Why wouldn’t I” are legacies of this.

A more formal way to phrase this without the contraction might be, “Why am I unable to do it?”, “Why am I not allowed to do it?” or “Why must I not do it?”

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This is a very basic grammar question:

I cannot do it. = I can not do it.

*Why can't I do it? Contracted form. *Why can I not do it? No contraction.

It follows the pattern for negative interrogative in English:

The order of a negative interrogative in English is: Auxiliary verb + subject + not + verb.

Contracted form: Contracted auxiliary with not + subject + verb.

Can I not do it? Can't I do it?

It is easy to not realize that cannot is can not, and therefore that it actually follows the negative interrogative pattern.

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