SOS English: Cannot vs. Can Not

Yes, you can. But sometimes you can not. Or cannot. Or can’t. Well, which one is it? Let’s find out in this article!

Same Same But Different

“Can’t” is the obvious shortened form of “can not.” So both mean the same thing. But what about “cannot?” If you take a look at various dictionaries, “cannot” is defined as “can not / can’t,” which means that the word and the phrase mean the same thing as well: it expresses that a person or object is unable or doesn’t have the permission to do something. So, since both versions are acceptable spellings, what’s the buzz about their difference? 


Although both “can not” and “cannot” mean the same thing, one is more commonly used than the other – especially under certain circumstances when the context prefers one version over the other. For example, for casual conversation and informal writing (although it is also “accepted” in formal writing), you rather use “can’t” instead of “cannot.” 

However, when it comes to formal writing and speaking, “cannot” is the much more appreciated version. Also, when you want to emphasize a point on the word “not,” you better choose “cannot” here as well.


πŸ’‘ preferred for formal writing and speaking

πŸ’‘ used to emphasize “not” in a conversation

πŸ’‘ generally favored by most writers  

Formal Conversation

  • The victim cannot make any claim to compensation for damages.
  • The finance department cannot accurately predict the effects of the takeover today.
  •  The board of management cannot rule out that the financial risk will be higher than expected.
  • The electronic signature cannot develop its full potential.
  • Children who cannot be supported by their parents are put into state institutions.

Emphasis on “not”

  • cannot believe he did this to you!
  • No, you cannot go to Susan’s party after failing your maths exam!
  • The board of HR cannot allow this behavior to continue.
  • We cannot wait for the final results.
  • cannot afford to lose you.

Can Not

πŸ’‘ preferred for informal writing and conversations

πŸ’‘ although not preferred, it’s still accepted for formal writing

  • Joe can’t come to Stephen’s party after failing his maths exam.
  • You can not turn right onto a one-way street.
  • Stephanie can not only play the guitar but also sing very well.
  • He can not deny his mistake.
  • can’t think of a better person for this job.