Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

How to Recognize "Can" Versus "Can't" in English Conversation

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Tue, Aug 13, 2013 @ 08:24 AM

CAN VERSUS CANT  English conversationsDo you sometimes have trouble figuring out if the person you are speaking with said "can" or "can't"?

Has this created any problems for you in the past?

Well if so, don't worry, you are not alone. This is a common point of confusion for many students.

Because the differences between the two words are pretty important and very subtle, I decided to create this lesson for you today to clear up that confusion for good. I hope this helps!



1) Can


 Americans pronounce this word differently when it's alone than when it's in the middle of a sentence, such as, " I don't think he can come to the party tonight."

What's the difference? When we pronounce the word alone, it makes the "æ" vowel sound which can also be found in words like "pan," "fan," or "man."


But when you put the word "can" into a sentence like this one: "I don't think he can come tonight," it sounds more like "kin"




2) Can't


 can't English conversation listening thumbs downWhen we say the word "can't" alone, we pronounce the "t" on the end completely.

But when we say it in a sentence such as, "I can't be at the station by 6 pm" we don't completely say the "t" sound.

Instead we raise the tongue up to the roof of the mouth (as if we were going to make the "t" sound), but we stop before the tongue hits the roof of the mouth and we pronounce the next word in the sentence.



Don't forget to watch the video above and take the quiz at the end of the video to test your learning!

I hope these tips will help you the next time you are speaking with native speakers and you get confused! If you have any questions about this lesson or if you want to practice, please contact me at



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