Two Conversations about Grammar
John Larrysson Column

Recently I have had two conversations about a grammar topic in one of my articles. ('cannot' or 'can not') One conversation was live and the other was by email. The first conversation was with a person who teaches a very complex explanation and disagreed with my simpler explanation. This native English speaker and self-described grammar expert complains that people don't understand proper English grammar. I will not tell you what her explanation was for two reasons. One, her explanation is not true. It is not found in any major publisher's grammar books, dictionaries or style guides. Two, it is very complex.

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My second conversation was with an acquaintance of mine of several years. He is a prominent linguistics (study of language) professor and department chair at a world famous university. This professor has published many books and articles on language, including a popular dictionary. He was unable to understand or explain the complex grammar opinion from the first person I talked to. If he is unable to explain the point, then what hope does a primary school student have of mastering this grammar point?

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Dictionaries usually include the word 'cannot' because it is a word. They also do not include a separate entry for 'can not' because it is two words. No dictionary includes an entry for 'they also', but it is correct. The words do not are not given their own entry in most dictionaries, but the contracted word don't is commonly found. There are entries for 'can' and 'not'. Every prominent English reference book that mentions the 'cannot' or 'can not' issue claims that both spellings are correct.

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We should not expect young primary school students, learning English as a second (or third) language, to understand grammatical arguments that a world renowned expert finds too complicated. Learning languages is not easy for most people. It takes years of study. English should be kept simple. Ignore people who insist on rules that most people don't use.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.