A question from Diana from the USA:
Hi, I would like to know the correct usage of the phrase 'Can we not...'. If I say 'Can we not go there?', that could have two meanings... one would be of disgust, the other of eagerness. Are both correct ways to use the words? If not, which is the right way?
Can we not... / Can we not go there?
Alex Gooch answers:
Hello Diana. You're right, the question 'Can we not go there?' can have two completely different meanings.
Firstly, it can express eagerness. When we use the question: 'Can we not (do something)?' we want to do this thing, but we think it might be impossible or not allowed.
Here's an example: Let's imagine a couple in a travel agency, looking at the brochures and trying to decide about a holiday. Let's call them 'Mary' and 'David'.
In this first example, Mary says:
"Can we go abroad this year?"
In this case, she thinks it's probably okay to go abroad, so she uses the simple form of the question, without 'not'; just "Can we go abroad this year?"
On the other hand, there might be a conversation like this:
David might say,
"We haven't got much money. Let's take a holiday in Britain this year."
And Mary might answer:
"Well, we've been on holiday in Britain for the last five years. Can we not go abroad this year?"
Here, Mary wants to go abroad, but she thinks this might be impossible or not allowed because of David's comments. So in this situation, we use the question 'Can we not (do something)?'
When we say 'Can we not (do something)?' to express eagerness, we can also say:
'Can't we' - 'Can't we (do something)?'
In fact, 'Can't we (do something)?' is the more common way of expressing this.
So, Mary might say:
"Can't we go abroad this year?"
On the other hand, 'Can we not (do something)?' can also express disgust or not wanting to do this thing.
Let's think about another example: Mary and David, again, are in the travel agents' looking at brochures...
"I'd like to go to Iceland."
"Iceland sounds very cold. I don't like cold places. Can we not go there?"
Here, Mary doesn't want to go Iceland, because she doesn't like cold places. We sometimes use 'Can we not (do something)?' to express the fact that we really don't like this thing, and we don't want to do it.
This use of 'Can we not (do something)?' is very informal - and it's more common in America, but British people have started to use it too. In this type of situation we never use the contraction 'can't', as in 'Can't we (do something)?'. It's always "Can we not..." - "Can we not (do something)?"
So, when someone uses a question like this, how do we know what they mean? Actually, the sentences all look the same when they're written down, but they're normally used in spoken English, and when we say them, the stress changes according to the meaning.
When we want to express eagerness, we stress the word 'can' and the main verb.
"Can we not go abroad this year?"
On the other hand, when we want to express disgust, or the desire not to do this thing, we put strong stress on not.
"Can we not go there?"
Incidentally, Diana, the particular example that you chose: 'Can we not go there?' has come to have a special meaning in English recently...
If we say:
"Can we not go there?"
That can mean: "I don't want to talk about it: let's not talk about this."
Alex Gooch has been an English teacher for ten years. He has taught in Poland and Switzerland, and more recently he's been teaching in various universities in the UK.
Audio - Download the answer (mp3 - 1.1 mb)
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