3

University of Sussex

The negative of can is cannot (one word) not can not (two words).

I cannot do X = I am unable to do X.

I can not do X = I am able not to do X.

University of Sussex establishes an equivalence that does not seem to be well founded, at least in the light of the results provided by Google, which show that "I am able not to do X", unlike "I can not do X", has virtually no diffusion in the English language.

So, is "I am able not to do X" legal? And, as an instance, can we really replace "I can not do X" with "I am able not to do X" in the following piece—in which X="that"— quoted from a British newspaper?

“I hit a driver when I can hit driver, but if I need to hit a five-iron I don’t care,” he said. “I want it in the fairway and I don’t want it in a bunker. I’m doing everything I can not to do that.["]

3
  • 1
    I am able not to do X means I am able to avoid doing X, which is not a thing people often have occasion to say. In your last sentence, however, the construction is not I can not to do (that's just an accidentall collacation) -- it's everything [which] I can [do], with not to do that added as the purpose or goal = in order to avoid doing that Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 13:38
  • 4
    By the way, there's an alternative to the Sussex I am able not to do X : I am able to not do X Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 13:41
  • I am able not to be cool, but it's very hard. :) Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 13:48

1 Answer 1

4

"I am not able to do X" and "I am able to not do X" mean two completely different things.

"I am not able to do X" means that doing X is beyond my ability.

"I am able to not do X" means that I am capable of avoiding or refraining from doing X. It implies that I am perfectly able to do X if I wanted to, but I can stop myself from doing it when I don't want to.

For example, if I had a medical problem that prevented me from swallowing, I might say, "I am not able to eat." But if I am on a diet and I am trying to say that I have the will-power to refrain from over-eating, I might say, "I am able to not eat." In the second case, I am perfectly capable of eating, I just don't want to or know I should not. In the first case, I may or may not want to, but it doesn't matter because I can't.

You must log in to answer this question.