When is a space like a speed bump?

Neighborhood moms and dads may profess to appreciate speed bumps, but once they’re out of their own cul-de-sacs, they curse the forced slow-downs as much as the rest of us. Likewise, when a ‘speed bump’ makes me stumble over an otherwise smooth bit of reading, I feel just as jarred and aggravated.

I’ve begun encountering such a bump in a perfectly good word with jolting frequency, and I’m getting whiplash. See if you can pick out the culprit in this example:

“If you can not attend the meeting, please let me know.”

Did you hit the brakes over that needless space in “cannot”? I don’t know who started making writers doubt themselves, but it must have been someone of significance, because even the most talented of my colleagues are now inserting a space where no space need ever have appeared.

I started to doubt myself, in fact. Maybe I missed some trend, where “cannot” joined the ranks of things your old English teacher taught you that no longer apply. However, I am blissfully happy to learn this isn’t the case. “Cannot” as one word is still correct, according to:

The University of Sussex, which says:
The negative of can is cannot (one word), not can not (two words).
I cannot do X = I am unable to do X.
I can not do X = I am able not to do X.

Online, someone asked the Chicago Manual of Style experts:
“Clearly, the word ‘cannot’ is in the dictionary as one word. But does this mean that it is incorrect to say ‘can no'” as two words? This controversy is raging in my office and has some people very upset. What are your thoughts?”

Chicago answered thus:

“Sometimes you can not say something more easily than you can say it. In the preceding sentence, ‘can not’ is accurate and ‘cannot’ wouldn’t make sense. Constructions like that, however, are often confusing or ambiguous, in which case rephrasing is wise, e.g., ‘Sometimes it’s easier not to say something than to say it.'”

OK, that’s a bit hard to follow, but Chicago’s point is this: “can not” as two words means “capable of not doing something,” which is quite different from cannot do (incapable of doing) something.

Merriam Webster lists one form of the word: cannot, with no space. “Can not” isn’t even listed as a variant.

The Associated Press Stylebook simply has one word for this entry: Cannot.
(No explanation needed. It’s obvious, isn’t it?)

I encourage you to go back to bravely using “cannot” as one word without a space when you mean “can’t.” Anything that makes your reader hesitate over what you really meant to say is getting in the way of your message.

And I cannot stand it anymore. I’m incapable of standing it. I can’t stand it. Can you?



4 thoughts on “When is a space like a speed bump?

  1. And posts like these are why I enjoy your blog so much. I just can’t believe how many times I see the improper uses of their/there and your/you’re these days.

    P.S. I have Strunk’s “Elements” on CD on my hold list at the library and I’m pretty excited for the refresher. Thanks for the tip!

  2. I’d benefit the most from having the AP Stylebook on CD. Somehow, though, I don’t think it would be quite so interesting!

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