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Language Arts

Can’t, Cant, Cannot

This article helps you compare and differentiate between three words related by spelling: "cannot," "can't," and "cant." It provides tips on how to remember which to use in a sentence an proper spelling of "cannot," "can't," and "cant."

If you can’t avoid cant in your conversation, then I cannot listen to you. This odd combination of words includes one which is an abbreviation of another, and an unrelated third that differs only by an apostrophe. For help sorting this confusing trio out, read on.


If you don’t do something, you do not. If you won’t do something, you will not. If you wouldn’t do something, you would not. But if you are unable to something, you almost always cannot.

It is possible to write can not, but it is unusual. The closed up form of cannot with no space is the more often used spelling. Usually, you only see the words written separately in two situations: first, if the word not is forming part of another construction, and second, if you wished to emphasize just the word not with italics of boldface type. Here are examples:

Sure, you can borrow my car to go to the high school soccer match. You can not only borrow the car but you can also borrow my very comfortable camp chair. The only thing is - and I’m sorry about this - you can not borrow my lawn umbrella, because I will be using it myself this afternoon.

Notice the not only . . . but also construction in the second sentence that requires can not rather than cannot. Cannot would make no sense in this sentence which is giving permission.


Can’t is simply the auxiliary verb + negative contraction of the word cannot. You can see that in this case, the apostrophe replaces two letters no. Its formation is similar to that of other auxiliary verbs and negative, although the exact letters that are omitted to make each contraction pronounceable differ.


The two distinct words, both spelled cant, unlike cannot and can’t, have no negation involved in their meanings or origins. The first form, which is a noun as well as a transitive verb (one that takes an object) and intransitive verb (one that doesn’t require an object), comes into English through Old North French and Vulgar Latin, from the Latin word canthus, meaning “rim of a wheel.” The second form, which is a noun and an intransitive verb, comes into English through Anglo-Norman from the Latin word cantare, meaning “to sing.”

The meanings of the first form of cant related to corners, angles, and tilting. The meanings of the second form of cant relate to language. One meaning is “hypocritical speech.” Another is a synonym for argot and refers to a groups specialized language that is used as a shibboleth to conceal activities and clarify who belongs and who doesn’t. Here are some examples:

Please correct the cant of the mantelpiece - it’s 2 degrees off straight.

I have no interest in being converted, so please spare me your cant.

Thieves cant is actually rather interesting!

Cant and can’t are pronounced identically as /CANT/, but their meanings are so distinct that there is little chance of confusing them in speech, if one knows the meaning of each.

Differentiating Cannot, Cant, and Can’t

To keep these three straight, try this reasoning:

Can’t is a contraction. By definition, the apostrophe rules that some letters must have been left out. Since cant is spelled identically, with all the same letters, cant and can’t are not related. Can’t does, however, contain letters that connect it to cannot.

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