The main question is how to tell them apart?

I've heard two main explanations from native speakers:

  1. Because can't has that t sound in it.
  2. Using the context

To what I think:

  1. Yeah, no way in earth you can tell that t most of the times. If the pronunciation is right and there's no background noise, it's mostly audible. But that's a big if.
  2. Well, sometimes it's obvious, but too many times it's just not. Precisely because of what the verb is used for it could either be one or the other in the same context or situation.

Now, I know you can say cannot, which makes perfect sense, but I don't see people using it much.

And on top of that I need to ask why. Why are them too phonetically close? Who would do such a thing?

For someone who has been brought up with english, imagine a language that had "yes" for yes and "yess" for no. Kind of silly isn't it?

  • I'm not sure what your question really is. "How and why?" is a bit vague.
    – rogermue
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 4:06
  • I may be bashed again, but I just tell what I have learned in school: In BE, it's easy to tell apart can and can't, because the pronunciation of "can't" is usually kɑːnt, whereas in America and Australia it's mostly pronounced kænt.
    – mic
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 4:52
  • 3
    Yes, as an Australian, it's a lot easier to tell 'can' (rhymes with 'man') from can't (rhymes with 'aunt'). As for silliness - well, can't is a contraction of 'can not', so naturally it's going to include some form of the parent word, can. It'd be sillier if it didn't.
    – Damien H
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 6:17
  • 3
    As said above, in British and Australian English, the vowels are different: they're kæn and kɑːnt. In American English, the vowels are also often different, but they're ken and kænt. See Merriam-Webster. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:20
  • 1
    Note that this is not just a problem for a learner when listening to tell which of the two words has been said — it can be a problem for a learner when speaking the words, so that the listener can tell which one was said.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:16

2 Answers 2


You are correct in saying that the /t/ is rarely heard in can't. /n/ and /t/ are articulated at the same point in the mouth, so there is no distinct movement of the tongue to produce the /t/.

However, there is a great deal more to phonology than the sounds selected to be represented by the writing system. There are four associated 'environmental' phenomena which clearly distinguish can from can't:

  1. A /t/ (or other voiceless stop) at the end of a syllable is spoken with a 'coarticulated' glottal closure, so there is always a distinct interruption of airflow. Can, by contrast, ends with a voiced continuant which does not interrupt the airflow: air continues to emerge through the nose.
  2. The vowel which precedes a voiceless consonant is 'shorter', as voicing is relaxed in anticipation of the consonant. Although the vowel before /-nt/ is nominally followed by a voiced consonant, it is timed as if it were followed by the voiceless stop, so the vowel in can't is shorter than that in can.
  3. If can't is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, the /t/ re-emerges through ordinary English syllabification, which binds a terminal consonant to an onset vowel in the following syllable. With can, of course, there is no /t/, and the /n/ is bound to the following syllable.
  4. Most importantly, can't is always stressed; contraction is only permitted on words following stressed words. Can, however, is almost always unstressed. In consequence, the vowel in can is 'reduced' to something closer to a centralized /ɛ/ or even /ɪ/. When can is stressed, this will usually be because it contrasts with a preceding negative; in this case, the discourse contrast will supplement the other environmental factors.

So the contrast isn’t between /kæn/ and /kæn(t)/ but between /kɛ·n/ and something like /’kæ̃ʔ/. Native speakers 'hear' the /t/ not because it's actually there but because everything else in the environment points to its being there!

  • 3
    Superb answer. Although all true, 1 and 4 are by far the most important of these when attempting to recognize the difference. Can't is distinctively stressed, and the "gap" between the 'n' and the first sound of the next word is very obvious to a native speaker. It's almost a tiny pause, the length of the 't' sound.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:13
  • Note also that in some words, the 't' sound is kept while the 'n' is partially dropped. Eg "can't you" is actually produced more akin to 'cart you'.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:15
  • @JonStory Yes; in the US the /t/ palatalizes with the /j/ of you to produce what is commonly written cancha. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:22

This probably isn't what you want to hear, but the answer is that native speakers can hear the t.

'Cannot' is the original form, but over time the 'no' has been dropped specifically because it's not really needed in casual conversation between fluent speakers.

  • 2
    And in those few cases where it is hard to hear the difference, if you're unsure you've heard it correctly, you can always just ask for clarification. If a co-worker tells me, "I can('t) go to the meeting tomorrow," I can always ask: "Wait, did you just say that you could go, or that you cannot go?" That's never considered rude; the speaker will usually restate the original sentence a little more slowly and clearly, often with added words to make it more clear (such as, "Yes, I can make it – I do plan to be there," or "No, I cannot - I won't be there.")
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 10:15
  • 1
    Native speakers can't hear the t - it simply isn't there ... however, we can hear the lack of one. There's a distinctive, if subtle, gap between the n and the start of the next word, almost as if the speaker is holding their breath for a fraction of a second.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:11

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