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I am having a problem understanding the meaning of the phrase "Can you not".

For example, is it that the sentence "Can you not teach him that?" can either mean "Are you not able to teach him that?" or "Can you stop teaching him that?"?

Please kindly tell me if the ambiguity does exist and how native speakers distinguish them. I can't find explanation anywhere else.

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  • Why would one ever write Can you not? The correct English is Can't you. Modals are contracted whenever possible, especially with negatives. Can you not is not standard English, and marks the author as either extremely angry, or not a native speaker. This is even more true for spoken English. Dec 8 '20 at 19:07
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Yes, that sentence can be ambiguous on paper.

They would be distinguished by emphasis and tone of voice. Using "Can you not..." to mean "stop" is a fairly rude way to phrase it, and would likely be said with irritation/in the tone of a statement and with particular emphasis on the "not".

Using "Can you not..." to ask about ability would likely be said in a questioning tone of voice. The alternative phrasing of "Can't you..." would also eliminate the ambiguity.

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  • Thank you very much! I am surprised that it's considered rude when it means "stop" because I think phrasing it as a question is somehow softer/more polite than just say "Stop teaching him that." Would it be polite if add "please" at the end of the sentence? e.g. "Can you not teach him that, please?". if not, what's the other more natural and conversational options I have? Thank you! Dec 8 '20 at 11:41
  • @FindingNemo "Please don't teach him that" is a polite/neutral way to phrase it.
    – Katy
    Dec 8 '20 at 16:30
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“Can you not ...?” is commonly used in Scotland to mean something like “is there any reason why you should not ...? Or “Have you thought of ...?”

It is another way of saying “Can’t you ...?” and is equally polite or equally rude, depending on context.

“Can you not paint over the scratch? = “Can’t you paint over the scratch” is a suggestion.

“Can you not read?” = “Can’t you read?” is a rude admonishment to a trespasser.

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  • Interesting, "Can you not paint over the scratch?" would mean something totally different to me. I would imagine it uttered when someone is trying to stop another person from painting over a scratch, probably because they don't want their car/wall/whatever ruined by someone who doesn't know what they are doing. Like "Can you not do that?" = "Stop!"
    – Eddie Kal
    Feb 10 at 6:08
  • @EddieKal A valid comment. Even in Scotland, tone and context are important to get which meaning is intended. “Would you not ... ?“ and “can you not ...?” might both express “Do not ...!”, although I prefer the first.
    – Anton
    Feb 10 at 8:01

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