How do you distinguish "(can not) (do something)" from "can (not do something) "?

For instance, how to understand

He can not only kill them.

  • He has no possibility to kill them, but can do anything else.

  • He has no possibility to kill them without doing something else.

  • He can kill them or do something else with them.

  • He can do anything with them except killing them.

  • Besides just killing them he can also kill them and do something else to them.

  • 1
    This is usually done in speech by stressing the word not. In writing you have to use italics. Likewise you can use cannot or can't for the other pairing. Your sentence is kind of odd though. Try it with, "He can't kill them" vs "He can not kill them" vs "He cannot kill them"
    – Jim
    Apr 27 '15 at 3:18
  • Yeah, the "only" makes the sentence really odd... I'm not sure it's actually a sensible sentence with the word "only" in there.
    – Catija
    Apr 27 '15 at 4:38
  • 1
    "He can not only kill them, he can cook them for dinner, then use their skins to make a coat." Apr 27 '15 at 14:52

In general, if you say "he can not do X", you mean that he is not able to do X, and not that he is able to not to X. If you want to convey the idea of being able to not do X, you should say "can refrain from X" or "can stop doing X" or similar wording. Like, "I can not eat chocolate" means that something prevents me from eating chocolate -- perhaps I am allergic, or I am on a diet. If you want to say that you have the willpower to refrain, you might say, "I can refrain from eating chocolate" or "I can stop myself from eating chocolate", etc.

The sentence you quote does not sound like a complete sentence. We often use that phrasing as a subordinate clause. For example, "He can not only frighten them, he can kill them." That is, "not only X, but also Y", where Y is something more extreme than X. (I'm not quite sure what would follow "he can not only kill them", as killing someone would seem to be the limit of what you can do to a person. Well, maybe something like, "He can not only kill them, he can erase all record that they ever lived" or something like that.)

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