I am wondering what is the difference between these sentences? Do they have the same meaning?

I cannot eat meat.

I can not eat meat.

I can eat no meat.

I've seen such sentences as:

I can eat no meat but still be healthy.

But can I also use the "can do no" form in other situations, in case where I would normally use "can not do"?

  • 1
    "Can not eat meat" is unambiguous - it means able to abstain from meat. However, "can eat no meat" is ambiguous - it might be a somewhat awkwardly phrased version of able to abstain from meat, or if read as an older rendering, it can mean unable to eat meat.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:50
  • 3
    @Lawrence 'Can not' is simply the original, older spelling of 'cannot'. It does not exclusively mean 'able to abstain from meat'.
    – Angelos
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 17:12
  • Perhaps more persuasively: "can not" is the phrase that "can't" abbreviates, and "I can't" unambiguously means "I cannot" — so "I can not" is ambiguous. Commented May 28, 2016 at 18:29
  • @Nothingatall In modern usage, "can not" means exclusively "able not to". If we grant the older use you mention, it makes the form "can not" ambiguous as well (as Scott notes).
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 29, 2016 at 0:44
  • I'm not sure why @Scott thinks "I can not" is ambiguous; "I cannot" and "I can not" are equivalent. The remainder of the comment seems contradictory.
    – eques
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 18:35

2 Answers 2


I cannot eat meat.

I can not eat meat.

These only differ in spelling. Sometimes "cannot" is one word and sometimes two. In either case, it means "to be unable to"


I cannot eat meat


I am unable to eat meat

The last one:

I can eat no meat

is a less common phrasing. It can mean the same as the other (inability to consume meat) or it can mean the subject is able to avoid eating meat. This difference may be clearer with context:

I cannot eat meat for a week

I can eat no meat for a week

The first says for a period of a week, the speaker is unable to consume any meat. The second says for a period of a week, the speaker is able to survive without eating meat. The difference is essentially what is negated.

With other verbs/objects, the meaning can differ from the other form:


I can't do wrong


I can do no wrong

The former expresses an inability/prohibition on doing wrong things.

The latter expresses that nothing the subject is able of doing is wrong.

  • "can not", allows for variation in emphasis "I can not eat meat". Otherwise the single word is the preferred spelling.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 18:52

In your example of "I can eat no meat and still be healthy" "I can eat no meat" doesn't really mean the same thing as "I can not eat meat". If I am correct, they are saying that they are able to stay healthy even without eating meat. If you said "I can not eat meat and still be healthy" that doesn't mean the same thing. The first says that they are able to abstain from meat and retain health, while the second says that they are not able to retain their health if they do eat meat. Ultimately, the problem is that you should say "I can abstain from eating meat and still be healthy." Hope this helps.

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