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Using and Understanding “CAN” and “CAN’T in Conversational English

Posted by Nara Venditti on December 3, 2010

In the English language, there are words and expressions that are used more often than others. While the subtleties of how they are used can be confusing for non-native speakers of English, recognizing and using them properly will help improve conversational English – due to their higher frequency of usage in spoken English.

Two such words are “can” and “can’t”.  These words have opposite meaning and are often interchanged because they may sound the same to a foreigner’s ear  Non-native speakers tend to reduce the vowel in “can” and omit the “t” in “can’t”.  Misunderstanding and misusing them may create havoc in business.

I will illustrate using a few examples:

CAN:  What a baby can do? A baby can cry.  A baby can eat.  In these two sentences, CAN is used along with a verb (cry and eat).  Here “can” is pronounced as [kən] or [kn].  In other words the “a” sound [æ] is reduced. 

However, in some cases [æ] is not reduced:

  1. When CAN is the last word in a sentence: E.g., Yes I CAN – [kæn], or:I will do it as soon as I CAN.
  2. When used as negative, both in full – CANNOT and abbreviated – CAN’T.  E.g., You CANNOT or CAN’T use the pool after 9 PM.
  3. When it is stressed, or emphasized. E.g.,  I will prove to you that I CAN run a marathon.

 

CAN’T:  A baby “CAN’T” speak or A baby “CAN’T”walk. A non-native speaker may not distinguish this subtle difference and this may sound much like “CAN” [kæn].

TIP:  To be 100% sure

1)  Ask to clarify – Do you mean “CAN” or “CANNOT?

2)  Use the full word – To express negative, say – I  “CANNOT”.

Practice: read aloud the sample sentences listed in this article a few times until you get it right.

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