On a TV program, a person, doesn't have a driver license, said:

How can I get to the shop? I don't drive.

but in my opinion, he may say:

How can I get to the shop? I can't drive.

Is it correct? and what is the difference between "don't" and "can't"?

I would very appreciate if anyone could tell me.


The two have overlapping but not always identical meanings. Both indicate that the speaker is not able to drive to the shop. Depending on the reason for this impossibility, the right auxiliary may be don't or can't or even won't.

  • I lack something important for driving, such as a car or a driving license. → can't
  • I lack the ability to drive: I don't have the skill, or I'm blind. → can't
  • I will not be able to drive that particular time, for example because my spouse needs the car at the same time, or because I plan to be drunk. → can't or won't be able to
  • I don't habitually drive. Perhaps I don't own a car, perhaps I don't know how to, perhaps it's a life choice. → don't
  • I refuse to drive that particular time, for example because traffic will be exceptionally bad and I hate being stuck in traffic. → won't
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  • Thank you Gilles, your explain is very easy to understand. – Chris Nov 29 '13 at 11:58
  • I think it also depends on the verb after the "don't/can't", for example "I don't understand it." and "I can't understand it." are almost the same meaning,am I right? – Chris Nov 29 '13 at 12:34
  • @Chris Indeed this doesn't work with all verbs — only with actions, I think. The verb understand already has a strong connotation of ability — “I understand” means “I am able to know the meaning” — so you wouldn't normally use “can understand”. You might say something like “I could understand this sentence if I spent two hours analyzing it”, or you might use “I cannot understand why he does this” as emphasis (it's stronger than “I don't understand”, it implies that understanding is impossible). So with *understand the nuances would be pretty different. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 29 '13 at 12:54

In day to day conversation "I don't drive" and "I can't drive" are taken to mean exactly the same, eg. the inability to drive. However "can't" conveys the definite fact of not having the skill, whereas "don't" implies the ability to drive but leaves open the possibility of being unable to drive for some other reason. If the ability to drive was for some other reason, then instead of saying "I don't drive" (meaning "I'm unable to") it is much more likely that the speaker would say "I can't drive because ......" and then give a reason such as "I've had too much to drink" "I have no road tax" etc etc. Generally the difference between "don't" and can't is very slight sometimes implying choice, or action based on belief or simple circumstance So for example "I don't read the Times" (choice and political belief - I don't like conservative newspapers) - "I can't read the Times" (circumstance - my eyesight is poor the print is small. "I don't smoke" ( choice and belief - bad for your health) "I can't smoke" ( circumstance - it makes my asthma worse").

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  • What about, "don't drive because I can't"? – RonJohn Dec 4 '17 at 3:54

"How can I get to the shop? I don't drive."

The above sentence simply means that the person is capable of driving, but he doesn't (regularly) drive.

"How can I get to the shop? I can't drive."

The above sentence means that the person CANNOT drive. As in he is not capable of driving.

Both sentences are correct, but both carry different meanings, in summary: the first one states that the person is capable of driving, and the second one states that the person is not capable of driving.

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  • 1
    I don't think it's that simple. I've heard both phrases used to mean essentially the same thing - that the person concerned has never learned to drive and does not hold a license. – Nigel Harper Nov 29 '13 at 10:26
  • 3
    The first sentence does not mean that the person is capable. – snailplane Nov 30 '13 at 9:35
  • @snailplane agreed. For example, "I don't drive, because I can't drive." – RonJohn Dec 4 '17 at 3:55

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