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I'm playing a game and it doesn't let me pick up an item. At some point I asked "Why cannot I carry this?" My friends are telling me my question is grammatically incorrect. I feel like it might be strange cause I did not use a contraction "can't" but still correct as "cannot" is itself a contraction so the movement of "not" is not necessary. What's the story here, please? Thank you!

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2 Answers 2

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You are correct, can't is a contraction of cannot - as in 'unable', but "Why cannot I...", whilst grammatically correct, is a very formal way of phrasing the question. I doubt that it has been in common usage since the 1850's. To modern ears, it sounds 'odd' or strange.

"Why can't I pick that up?" is an appropriate question, either in a computer game or in general day-to-day interactions.

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  • Cannot is rarely used in English. It occurs, like most archaic language, principally in writing, where it represents ways in which English used to be spoken. Oct 30, 2019 at 23:08
  • Not sure I agree... It's use does tend to be at the more formal end of the common usage, not so much in TOWIE. I am Romford born & bred!
    – NeilB
    Oct 30, 2019 at 23:19
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    It's rarely used in questions, but not uncommon in statements.
    – Barmar
    Oct 31, 2019 at 2:36
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Understanding typical question structures in English will help bring clarity to this question. Consider, as an example, the tag questions.

  • I may eat breakfast in my room, may I not? (more formal)

  • I may eat breakfast in my room, mayn't I? (less formal)

  • You can swim, can you not? (more formal)

  • You can swim, can't you? (less formal)

  • I am going with you, am I not? (more formal)

  • I'm going with you, aren't I? (less formal)

Notice that in all of these tag questions, the "not", unless contracted, comes last in the sentence. If contracted, the pronoun comes last. To phrase the tag as "may not I?" would be incorrect.

While "cannot" is a single word, it is not equivalent to a contraction. It would be equivalent to one of the other modal verbs combined with the adverb "not" in how it gets used in these questions.

Following this same pattern, the correct phrasing of the OP's question would be:

  • "Why can I not carry . . . ?" OR
  • "Why can't I carry . . . ?"

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