I cannot tell a lie (or is it can not)?

Dear readers,

I spent the past weekend at a monastery in Yamhill County, where I found my meditations distracted by a tale that you may recall—concerning young George Washington and a cherry tree.  According to legend, George was given a hatchet when he was about six years old.  With his prized hatchet, young George went about cutting down bushes, and trees, and more trees, and finally, his father’s prized cherry tree. 

Father was not pleased. 

After questioning everyone in the house about the incident, he asked young George if he knew anything about it.  This was a tough question.  But young George, summoning the courage that would help him defeat Lord Cornwallis years later, said, “I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie!  I cut the tree.”  Happily, young George lived to become the first President of our country.

So, you ask, what does this story have to do with this week’s Scribe tip?  Basically nothing, except that it provides a nice long introduction to this week’s topic:  when should we use “cannot” and when should we use “can not”?  Both usages are grammatically proper, although most of the time “cannot” is used as a single word, e.g.,

  • But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.
  • I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie!  I cut the tree.

But sometimes, it is better to use two words, such as when you are applying emphasis (“You can not take the Ferrari for a test drive.”) or when using a “not only” construction, e.g.,

  • Kali can not only research, but she can write, too.

NOTE:  The issue is avoided and the sentence reads more smoothly if “can” and “not only” are switched, e.g.,

  • Not only can Kali research, but she can write too.

That is all for now …

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