The misuse of cannot

Have you noticed the growing tendency of organisations to use the word “cannot” when they should be using the words “may not.”

This may seem a trivial whinge on my part. But organisations like to use “cannot” because it implies that they would like to help but are simply not able to do so. “May not” in contrast means they are not allowed to do something so implies a decision by an individual which of course can be challenged or reversed.

Just to be clear on definitions: “Cannot” means physically or mentally unable to do something – ie I cannot jump over that wall because it is 10 feet high. “May not” implies an element of decision making or judgement – ie I may not jump over that wall because someone has put up a sign saying “Do not jump over this wall.”

Consequently companies like to say “cannot” as they see this as a way of closing discussion on a subject,

I was reminded of this trend read last week when I read the very sad story of the dog that was put down by a vet within two hours of disappearing from garden.of its owners Phil Spencer and Kate Slater. Not surprisingly this cause a lot of anger and press headlines.

According to the Daily Mail, the vets  Blythman and Partners Vetinary Practice in Gosforth responded to inquiries by satating: “We cannot comment to a third party on this matter.”

Assuming the Mail’s reporting is correct, the phrasing is intended to carry an element of finality and close the discussion about whether the vets can say anything. But it is clearly a bogus use of the word. The vets are presumably mentally and physically capable of answering questions.

The correct usage should have been that the vets may “may not” answer questions on the subject. But that statement raises further questions. Who has taken the decision that they are not allowed to talk and why have they taken that decision? Does the law prevent a vet from talking to a third party about a case even when the owners of the animal are happy to talk? Or is it company policy made up on the hoof to justify saying nothing?

I feel sorry for picking on these vets because there are many bigger companies that are worse offenders – this misuse happens almost every time I ring customer services with a complaint.

But I think we should always challenge all those in power when they try to evade and avoid by using “cannot” instead of “may not.”

Addendum: I am grateful to Robin Bailey – @RobinMaxdew – for pointing out that that “cannot” is also used extensively when the real intention is “will not.” He is absolutely right – and we should not tolerate companies that behave in this way.


2 thoughts on “The misuse of cannot

  1. I do like a good bit of pedantry. It’s an interesting one though; do you think most of the time the confusion between the two terms is intentional, or perhaps not quite as clear cut? In your example, the vets may not want to make it clear that they made a simple choice not to comment, and instead allude to a possible legal/moral reason meaning they “cannot” rather than “may not” comment?


    1. I dont think we disagree on this. The key phrase in your comment is “may not want to make it clear….”
      At the most generous interpretation the use of “cannot” blurs exactly what their argument is. Had they made the simple choice they could have said: “We will not discuss….”


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