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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.


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