Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is “Can’t” Really the Word You Want?

My friend Chester (Chet Justice in real life; oraclenerd when he puts his cape on) tweeted this yesterday:
can’t lives on won’t street - i’m sure my son will hate me when he’s older for saying that all the time.

I like it. It reminds me of an article that I drafted a few months ago but hadn’t posted yet. Here it is...

When I ask for help sometimes, I find myself writing a sentence that ends with, “…but I can’t figure it out.” I try to catch myself when I do that, because can’t is not the correct word.

Here’s what can’t means. Imagine a line representing time, with the middle marking where you are at some “right now” instant in time. The leftward direction represents the past, and the rightward direction represents the future.


Can’t means that I am incapable of doing something at every point along this timeline: past, present, and future.


Now, of course, can’t is different from mustn’t—“must not”which means that you’re not supposed to try to do something, presumably because it’s bad for you. So I’m not talking about the can/may distinction that grammarians bring to your attention when you say, “Can I have a candy bar?” and then they say, “I don’t know, can you?” And then you have to say, “Ok, may I have a candy bar” to actually have candy bar. I digress.

Back to the timeline. There are other words you can use to describe specific parts of that timeline, and here is where it becomes more apparent that can’t is often just not the right word:
  • Didn’t, a contraction of “did not.” It means that you did not do something in the past. It doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t have, or that you were incapable of doing it; it’s just a simple statement of fact that you, in fact, did not.
  • Aren’t, a contraction of “are not.” It means that you are in fact not doing something right now. This is different from “don’t,” which often is used to state an intention about the future, too, as in “I don’t smoke,” or “I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”
  • Won’t, a contraction of “will not.” It means that you will not do something in the future. It doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t, or that you are going to be incapable of doing it; it’s just a simple statement of intention that you, right now, don’t plan to. That’s the funny thing about your future. Sometimes you decide to change your plans. That’s ok, but it means that sometimes when you say won’t, you’re going to be wrong.
Here’s how it all looks on the timeline:


So, when I ask for help and I almost say, “I can’t figure it out,” the truth is really only that “I didn’t figure it out.”

“...Yet.”

...Because, you see, I do not have complete knowledge about the future, so it is not correct for me to say that I will never figure it out. Maybe I will. However, I do have complete knowledge of the past (this one aspect of the past, anyway), and so it is correct to speak about that by saying that I didn’t figure it out, or that I haven’t figured it out.

Does it seem like I’m going through a lot of bother making such detailed distinctions about such simple words? It matters, though. The people around you are affected by what you say and write. Furthermore, you are affected by the the stuff you say and write. Not only do our thoughts affect our words, our words affect our thoughts. The way you say and write stuff changes how you think about stuff. So if you aspire to tell the truth (is that still a thing?), or if you just want to know more about the truth, then it’s important to get your words right.

Now, back to the timeline. Just because you haven’t done something doesn’t mean you can’t, which means that you never will. Can’t is an as-if-factual statement about your future. Careless use of the word can’t can hurt people when you say it about them. It can hurt you when you think it about yourself.

Listen for it; you’ll hear it all the time:
  • “Why can’t you sit still?!” If you ask the question more accurately, it kind of answers itself: “Why haven’t you sat still for the past hour and a half?” Well, dad, maybe it’s because I’m bored and, oh, maybe it’s because I’m five! Asking why you haven’t been sitting still reminds me that perhaps there’s something I can do to make it easier for both of us to work through the next five minutes, and that maybe asking you to sit still for the next whole hour is asking too much.
  • “You can’t run that fast.” Prove it. Just because you haven’t doesn’t mean you never will. Before 1954, people used to say you can’t run a four-minute mile, that nobody can. Today, over a thousand people have done it. Can you become the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed act in history of popular music if you can’t read music? Well, apparently you can: that’s what the Beatles did. I’m probably not going to, but understanding that it’s not impossible is more life-enriching than believing I can’t.
  • “You can’t be trusted.” Rough waters here, mate. If you’ve behaved in such a manner that someone would say this about you, then you’ve got a lot of work in front of you. But no. No matter what, so far, all you’ve demonstrated is that you have been untrustworthy in the past. A true statement about your past is not necessarily a true statement about your future. It’s all about the choices you make from this moment onward.
Lots of parents and teachers don’t like can’t for its de-motivational qualities. I agree: when you think you can’t, you most likely won’t, because you won’t even try. It’s Chet’s “WONT STREET”.

When you think clearly about its technical meaning, you can also see that it’s also a word that’s often just not true. I hate being wrong. So I try not to use the word can’t very often.

9 comments:

Karen said...

Great post!

A corollary to how can't is used is the way the words always and never are used. You set yourself up for more stinkin' thinkin' when you frame any statement with either always or never. In either case, you'd have to know everything there is to know from the past, present, and future to be able to accurately to qualify something as always or never occurring.

The bottom-line is that word choice IS important and it's an excellent practice to monitor the words we choose.

Mark W. Farnham said...

I can't leg press 900 pounds at sea level on the earth.

Brian Tkatch said...

Very nice. I especially like the point about how speech affects what we do. Our spoken and written words are quite powerful.

Thanx Cary!

Mark W. Farnham said...

But I do agree with your sentiments and I'm just being cheeky.

Joel Garry said...

Unfortunately, can't has been abused in the motivational arena, as when the fellow says "I can't go any further" and the counselor says "no such word" and the fellow dies of heart failure.

That is not a hypothetical.

Cary Millsap said...

Joel, Mark: I'm not saying the word has no utility; only that people need to be more careful in how they use it.

chet justice said...

I had never thought about it but I do try to check the words that I use when I write. I do avoid words like "can't," "always," and "never."

My third grade teacher, Mr. Salas (first male teacher), would always correct us:
Me: "Can I go to the bathroom?"
Mr. Salas: "I don't know, can you? I think you mean 'May I go to the bathroom?'"

I still do that to other people, or at least those that know me well enough to know I'm just giving them a hard time.

chet justice said...

oh, and thanks for the reminder in terms of using "can't" with the kids. I spot it when they say it, but not always when I say it.

Fahd Mirza said...

Nobody Can't make Cary tune the performance of Oracle database always on the basis of buffer cache hit ratio. :)