cannot or can not?

People often ask me whether they should write cannot (1 word) or can not (2 words).

Cannot is a contraction of can not.

In British English cannot is the normal form.

In American English both forms are acceptable but cannot is more common.

In general I would suggest that you use cannot.

However, note that there are times when you really have to use can not. If the word “not” is part of a set phrase, then you have no choice but to use the two-word form can not. Look for example at the set phrase “not only . . . but (also)”:

  • She not only stole the money but she also lied about it.
  • He can not only play tennis brilliantly, but he can also swim like a fish.

Note, too, that cannot may be contracted to can’t, but in formal written English (such as in an essay or exam) you are not advised to use can’t.


By Josef Essberger for EnglishClub July 2010
Josef started teaching English as a foreign language in 1991 and founded EnglishClub for learners and teachers in 1997.

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