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Can and Can’t: Hearing the Difference

Can and Can’t: Hearing the Difference
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This week on Ask a Teacher, we answer a question from Toshi in Japan. Here is the question:


Hi! How do native English speakers distinguish between "can touch" and "can't touch"? They sound the same for me. Also "can tell" and "can't tell" "can take" and "can't take" and so on. Thank you!


Hi Toshi. Hearing the difference between the positive “can” and the negative “can’t” is sometimes tricky, even for native English speakers.

But understanding these things can help:

  • the difference in vowel sounds
  • word stress differences
  • and the ending sound in “can’t”

Vowel, stress differences

Let’s talk about the differences in vowel sounds and word stress together since they are connected.

Here are the sentence examples we will use:

I can take you to the place today.

I can’t take you to the place today.

In the positive phrase “can take,” the usual /æ/ in “can” is reduced to something called a schwa. The schwa sound is similar to an /ʌ/ sound, but weaker. But in the negative phrase “can’t take,” the word “can’t” uses the true /æ/ vowel sound. In “can’t,” the vowel sound is never reduced.

This difference in sound is also connected to word stress – how loud and long we say each word in a phrase or sentence.

In “can take,” the word “take” should be said a little louder and longer than “can.” However, in “can’t take,” the word “can’t” should be said a little louder and longer than “take.”

Listen for the vowel and stress differences again in the two phrases:

  • can take
  • can’t take

The glottal stop

Another way to tell the negative and positive forms apart is through something called a glottal stop. It is a quick stop sound that happens when you close the vocal cords to briefly end the flow of air.

In American English, we use a glottal stop for many sounds, including the ending -t in the shortened words “can’t” “won’t” and “don’t.”

Now, listen to the examples again and see if you notice all of the differences more easily:

I can take you to the place today.

I can’t take you to the place today.

At home, you can also try saying these sentences aloud.

And that’s Ask a Teacher for this week.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this lesson for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

distinguish –v. to notice or recognize a difference between two or more things

positive –adj. showing support, approval or agreement

negative –adj. denying support; showing disagreement

vowel –n. a speech sound; in English the letters a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y

phrase –n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea

vocal cords –n. tissue in the throat that permits us to make sounds