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can't and cannot - question for North Americans
Thread poster: Natasha Dupuy

Natasha Dupuy  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:55
French to English
Aug 28, 2007

Dear colleagues,

A client of mine has just sent me a comment that has left me quite bewildered, so I'd like your opinion on the matter if you'd care to share it.

In a document destined for a global English-speaking audience, I wrote: "Because you can't trust anybody".
I used the contraction because I felt it was appropriate given the context and tone of the document.
The customer changed my "can't" to "can not" and added the following comment: "avoid using the apostrophe to express the 'not', as this is widely used in British English but very little elsewhere and is not always understood by Americans."
The person who wrote this comment is based in Canada.

Now as far as English-speaking countries go, I've lived in Australia, England and Canada, and I have to say it's the first time I have ever heard this.

So my question is: would you say this is true?


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Marlene Curtis  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:55
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Can't and cannot Aug 28, 2007

I live in the USA and down here can't is used all the time. I also lived in the UK for 10 years and can say the opposite is true, i.e., can not is more widely used in Britain than in the USA.

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Erika Pavelka  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:55
French to English
Baloney! Aug 28, 2007

Sorry, but that's a bunch of baloney. I live in Canada and we use can't all the time. Perhaps your client thought it was inappropriate to use it in the text, but the reason he/she gives is untrue. Saying that it is not always understood by Americans is practically insulting!

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Sophie Blachet  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:55
English to French
rarely see can not in the US Aug 28, 2007

Well, even if I am not a native English speaker I have lived in the USA for the past 7 years and all emails, documents and others that I receive or received always write can't ....

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:55
English to Spanish
+ ...
Used constantly Aug 28, 2007

"Can't" is used constantly in the US; "cannot" is also used as one word, not two.

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Natasha Dupuy  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:55
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
I agree... Aug 28, 2007

Erika Pavelka wrote:

Saying that it is not always understood by Americans is practically insulting!


My first thought too!


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djhovermale
Local time: 21:55
Russian to English
+ ...
Answer from a Linguist Aug 28, 2007

As a linguist I can testify that what other posters to this forum have said is true. Cannot (one word) is used only in formal speech or writing, and is used overwhelmingly less than can't in regular speech. One is much more likely to hear the full form in formal situations.

The reason that people might say 'cannot' in informal speech is either (1) they are trying to make themselves sound very educated or (2) they want to emphasize an inability. For example:

I simply cannot believe your Canadian friend!

In school our English teachers tell us never to use contractions in writing, but it has become widely accepted in recent years. Rest assured that you are correct and your friend is way off base. Refer him to studies by William Labov, Geoffrey Pullum, etc.

[Edited at 2007-08-28 19:39]


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Jim Tucker  Identity Verified
United States
Hungarian to English
+ ...
Agree with Henry - important Aug 28, 2007

1) First of all, "can't" is fine in AE, but I am sure there are people who avoid contractions in writing on some principle.

2) In any case "cannot" is, as Henry says, one word - and it's funny that someone is "correcting" you by substituting bad for good.


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Natasha Dupuy  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:55
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
cannot Aug 28, 2007

Yes, I changed the client's "can not" to "cannot" as soon as I saw it.

Thank you all very much for your helpful comments. I just saw red when I came across the remark, but I must admit I did start to doubt myself. I'm just glad you were all here to set me straight on the matter!


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Juliana Brown  Identity Verified
Israel
Local time: 21:55
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
This shocked Canadian Aug 28, 2007

djhovermale wrote:

As a linguist I can testify that what other posters to this forum have said is true. Cannot (one word) is used only in formal speech or writing, and is used overwhelmingly less than can't in regular speech. One is much more likely to hear the full form in formal situations.

The reason that people might say 'cannot' in informal speech is either (1) they are trying to make themselves sound very educated or (2) they want to emphasize an inability. For example:

I simply cannot believe your Canadian friend!



[Edited at 2007-08-28 19:39]


CANNOT believe that your Canadian friend said that...I agree, that is more usual when seeking to emphasize, but otherwise...balderdash!


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Anne Goff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:55
French to English
+ ...
ridiculous Aug 29, 2007

Not much to add, I agree with the previous posts. For what it's worth, I'm a native Californian.

As for 'can not' I have only ever seen this as two words when someone was really trying to emphasize it - ie "I can NOT believe you did that!" and even then it's rare.

can't
cannot


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Can Altinbay  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:55
Japanese to English
+ ...
Absolutely Aug 29, 2007

Henry Hinds wrote:

"Can't" is used constantly in the US; "cannot" is also used as one word, not two.


I want OP to have as much ammunition as we can provide, so I'm writing to say that Henry is absolutely correct.


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lingomania
Local time: 11:55
Italian to English
Apostrophe widely used in te USA Aug 29, 2007

I have never heard that the apostrophe is used rarely in the USA.....my U.S. colleagues were dumbfounded by the statement made by the client above. In reality, they tell me that the apostrophe is usually misused by many Americans...e.g. "they're" to mean "their", etc.

Rob


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Jan Sundström  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 03:55
English to Swedish
+ ...
Input from Singapore Aug 30, 2007

Hi all,

I had a short stint as an editor of a business magazine in Singapore, for the Asian market

When rewriting articles from overseas, I was always told to change all the can't and won't and they're, and she's. It was freaking me out!

I was showing the management Time, Newsweek, The Economist, all of international magazines use the contracted forms. But they wouldn't budge.

It looks ridiculously formal, but apparently the Singaporeans and some other backwater former English colonies are still prefering to have it that way! Maybe the person who "corrected you" had his schooling overseas?

/Jan


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Natasha Dupuy  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:55
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
misuse of apostrophes Aug 30, 2007

lingomania wrote:

In reality, they tell me that the apostrophe is usually misused by many Americans...e.g. "they're" to mean "their", etc.

Rob


Yes, it's a common problem in the English-speaking world. At uni in Australia we had to spell out everything in full, mainly to avoid people making mistakes between it's/its, there's/theirs, and they're/their, as you mentioned.


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