by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Sophisticated:The Magazine. All rights reserved.

can't Contraction of "cannot," the negative form of "can." 
1. Inability. 2. Lacking to power, right, means, or authority. 
3. Deficiency of capacity or skill. 4. Informal: refusal of permission.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. 
-- Wendell Phillips (1811-1884)
The impermissible usage of "cannot" usually has to do with "refusal of permission" (sense 4), to which "may not" is preferred. My concern is for liberty.
    "Volition," the most beautiful word in any language, means the act of willing, choosing, or deciding. Men and women have died for it. Name any other possession more valuable, any other gift more dear.
Surely no person would willingly trade volition for compulsion! Yet, every day you hear people doing exactly that. Unthinkingly, they renounce their own free will by saying things like...
  • "I can't sit through this movie."
  • "I can't eat asparagus."
  • "I can't stand that music."
Sure, it's just a figure of speech, but notice what happens if you replace each "can't" with a "won't." Suddenly, you reclaim your choices, you reassert your will, you have decided.

Sometimes "don't" works better. Seems like we should say, "I don't afford another magazine subscription." Funny, though, the English Language doesn't give us "don't" in front of "afford" (others do).

    So, do you want to know when I use "can't"?
Only when I can honestly add "even if my life depended on it." Accordingly, you may as well know...
  • "I can't play Beethoven."
  • "I can't slam-dunk anymore."
  • "I can't play chess blindfolded."
  • "I can't strike a match on an ice-cube."
Otherwise, I say "don't" or "won't." In addition to asserting my free will, the conscious effort serves to remind me of a cardinal principle:
    The real choices we have in life are negative (hence 101 Words I Don't Use).
Examples abound...
  • You can't always have the exact job/house/car/spouse you want, but you can always turn down any offer or proposal you receive.
  • A vegetarian relinquishes meat for a purpose.
  • A bicyclist renounces automobiles to make a statement.
  • A protester yields up freedom for a cause (an act made especially poignant when the cause is freedom).
By the way, sometimes I say "I don't play Beethoven."

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