Someone told me "cannot" isn't used properly in the following because it means "incapable or unwilling." Do you think it's incorrectly used? I saw it being used to talk about impossibility.

 Mary cannot be diligent. She always chats when working.

1 Answer 1


You have provided no context for this statement. As we don't know what conversation is going on, it is difficult to pin down the exact meaning.

However emphasis is important. The meaning depends partly on whether we emphasise "can" or "not". This determines whether we use "can not" or "cannot".

Mary can not be diligent. (probably impossibility depending on context)

is different from

Mary cannot be diligent. (probably unwillingness depending on context)

  • Are you suggesting that the different spellings signify different meanings?
    – Apollyon
    Nov 21, 2020 at 1:41
  • We can say that someone "cannot be" something to say that they are incapable of being in a particular state, e.g. a child cannot be still, silent, etc. You could add 'ever' to resolve ambiguity for example "he cannot ever be serious". Nov 21, 2020 at 9:39
  • @Apollyon - Not quite. I am suggesting that different emphasis requires different spelling and that such different emphasis will be determined by the context and the intention of the speaker. Here's a passage that uses "can not" repeatedly and then "cannot" once. It starts with "You can not trust a priest..." and ends with "...cannot steal your identity. WHY?" books.google.co.uk/… Nov 21, 2020 at 9:55
  • If I want to say something is impossible, it it okay to say "he/she cannot be . . . "?
    – Apollyon
    Nov 21, 2020 at 10:22
  • @Apollyon - I think we need to see what others say. I'm not sure how to explain it. In British English we would say "Mary can't be diligent. She always chats when working." This would mean that it is impossible for Mary to be diligent because she always chats. Maybe I'll come back to this question at a later date with fresh eyes. Nov 21, 2020 at 10:30

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