Despite being so common, the modal verb can might turn out to be challenging for non-native speakers due to the peculiarities of its pronunciation. There is also a significant difference between British and American English, which only make matters trickier. Fortunately, though, we can rely on very clear rules to understand how can works and learn to use it correctly and confidently.
The most important distinction to be made is between the positive and negative pronunciation of can.
When can is pronounced in the positive, you have to take into account two facts:
- It’s generally not stressed.
- The letter a is pronounced as a schwa /kən/. Actually, this vowel is so short that you can often see can transcribed as just /kn/.
This is the weak pronunciation of can, which is by far the most common.
There is also a strong form of can in the positive, with a full vowel /kæn/, but this is only used in two cases: when can is stressed -normally, for emphasis- and when it’s found at the end of a sentence or clause.
Now, when can is used in the negative it is normally contracted as can’t. The word cannot /ˈkænɒt/ exists too (note the stress on the first syllable, not the second), but is much less common. So, if you want to sound fluent and natural, it’s better to go for the contracted form, unless you want to emphasize it.
When you use or hear can’t, you have to bear in mind three essential elements:
- In the same way the positive can is seldom stressed, the negative can’t is always stressed.
- Crucially, the vowel sound is not the same as in the positive. The negative can’t is pronounced /kɑːnt/ in British English and /kænt/ in American English.
- As in all negative contractions (article coming soon), the /t/ is likely to be dropped, that is, not pronounced. This is not obligatory, so feel free to do it if you like, but be aware that native-speakers are going to drop the /t/ quite often when they say can’t.
This final element, the elision of the /t/, is generally received with utter surprise -if not incredulity- by some non-native speakers, especially us, Spaniards, because we are really fixed on the idea that everything included in the spelling must be pronounced, which is not the case in English. But the dropping of the /t/ in can’t really happens, believe me. You’ll find it out for yourself in the recordings below.
So, if native speakers don’t pronounce the /t/, you may well ask, how do you tell the difference between can and can’t? The answer is in the first two points explained above: the stress and the vowel quality.
Now, let’s listen to native speakers to illustrate all these features.
Can you write scores, Carrie? I can’t (Cambridge Proficiency Test). Notice the distinction in vowel quality and stress between the positive /kən/and the negative /kɑːnt/. Here the /t/ is pronounced, which is only normal, being at the end of the sentence.
Here are some other interesting examples. In the first two, you can hear the phrases can see and can’t see at the beginning of the sentence. You’ll probably agree that they are very different, but the t has nothing to do with it.
He can’t see but he can hear (Ian McEwan, BBC4). The negative can’t is produced with the three elements stated before: 1. stress; 2. /ɑː/ vowel; 3. /t/ not pronounced. The positive can is emphatic, and that’s why the speaker stresses it and uses the full vowel /kænt/.
In the following two examples of can’t you’ll find the same three features:
Now, let’s have some examples of can’t in American English:
And people can’t understand everything that’s happening to them (Rebecca Spang, BBC4). You’ll notice that the vowel is not the same as the one used by British speakers. First, is /æ/ instead of /ɑː/, but also because the American /æ/ is quite different from the British /æ/, especially when it’s followed by a nasal. It sounds closer to an /e/. In this recording, the /t/ is clearly heard, but don’t take it for granted because Americans drop it too.
Finally, listen to ex-president Barack Obama saying can and can’t in the same sentence:
The people of these countries are gonna have to find their own way. We can help ’em, but we can’t do it for ’em (Barack Obama). Even though it’s challenging, you can hear the differences in the vowels and the stress. Also notice the pronunciation of them /əm/. The dropping of the /ð/ in this word is a very common feature of informal American English.