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Friday, February 8, 2013

Should it be cannot or can not?

I was reading the following article by Andrew Birch and thought the digression in the comments about the wording of the title was interesting.

Setting The Story Straight On Windows RT & Why Firefox And Chrome Can Not And Should Not Be There... Read More

The original article was published using “cannot” and was later changed to “can not”. I don’t know about others, but something as seemingly minor as the use of cannot or can not would catch me out as well.

Checking the Australian Oxford Dictionary and the Macquarie Dictionary doesn’t really help either. At best the Macquarie states “a form of can not” and the Oxford simply gives the meaning of cannot as “can not”. So no real clarification from the authoritative references.

The online UK Oxford dictionary does provide some assistance with the definition of cannot. According to the online UK Oxford dictionary “Both the one-word form cannot and the two-word form can not are acceptable, but cannot is more common.” The online Oxford states the two-word is better “only in a construction in which not is part of a set phrase, such as ‘not only ... but (also)’: Paul can not only sing well, he also paints brilliantly”.

To me this means we think of “Paul can” and then the rest of the sentence. This isn’t the same situation as “can not and should not”.

I decided to check the usage in Australia using the returned results from Google with only pages from Australia. There was a fairly even split at 1.38 and 1.44 million for cannot and can not respectively. Not enough to state there was an overwhelming preference for one form versus another. Using the UK version of Google and only UK pages, the use was overwhelmingly for the two-word form.

What is interesting is Microsoft Word marks “can not” with a blue squiggly line which could cause many to change the two-word form to a single word. This is an example of a word processing tool making a suggestion and changing how someone writes. In this case the suggestion isn’t strictly wrong, but suggesting a change when it may not be necessary may be considered wrong of the word processor.

Based on this information the article by Andrew mentioned above, Andrew didn’t need to change the title as both variations are correct. Which variation is preferred is also difficult to determine. Whilst the UK Oxford would indicate the single-word form would be preferred, usage on the internet does not confirm the statement. In addition, whilst the UK Oxford may state something, I’m interested in the preferred Australian English spelling and our spelling has in many instances diverged from the UK spelling in terms of the preferred spelling.

Unfortunately at this time, this is one of those situations where I can’t give guidance to others. You have to love our language.

- Kelvin Eldridge
Call 0415 910 703 for help with your computer problem.
Servicing Templestowe, Doncaster, Eltham and the surrounding area.

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