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Can vs. can’t

Sometimes distinction between words is clear and obvious (at least after it’s pointed out) and sometimes it’s more subtle and complex.
Like in the case of can vs. can’t.

This video will hopefully help you not only to pronounce these words better, but also to distinguish between them when other people speak.

Watch all the nuances in pronouncing Can vs. can’t


Hi, it’s Hadar, and this is the Accent’s Way, your way to finding clarity, confidence, and freedom in English. I want to talk to you today about the two words: can and can’t. Can – “I can do it”, and can’t – “I can’t do it”.

Now, these two words are similar, and maybe when you hear them, they sound pretty much the same and it’s hard to distinguish which one’s which. So I promise that after this video, you’ll never confuse them again. Now, there is the basic pronunciation and there is the actual pronunciation in real speech. And I’m going to talk about both of them.

Let’s begin with a basic pronunciation. Both begin the same – ‘ca-uhn’, ‘ca-uhn’. We start with K sound, then you open it to an A as in cat, so drop your jaw and pull the lips to the sides of it – ‘ca’. Before the N the A as in cat closes a bit, and then you have an additional vowel that is inserted – ‘ca-uhn’, the transitional vowel, ‘ca-uhn’. You kind of drag the sound, ‘ca-uhn’.

The word “can’t” has a T, but you barely hear it. Listen: can’t, can’t. What you hear is not a T cause you don’t hear ‘can’t’, you hear an abrupt stop of the N and that is the T. “can” – “can’t”, “can’t”. Do you hear the difference? Good. But since it’s not a big difference, we need another element to distinguish the two. And that is why the vowel is also different. Let me explain.

The word “can” is usually reduced to ‘k’n’ ‘k’n’, “I ‘k’n’ do it”, “I ‘k’n’ do it”. That’s because the “can” is a function word. And function words are usually reduced. There are all the small words that are reduced to help the more important words, like verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and nouns to stick out. In this case, the verb sticks out. “I can DO it”, “she can TALK to him”, “she can TALK to him”. So I don’t say “she CAN’T talk to him” or “I CAN do it”, it’s too long, it takes, you know, it’s too much. So you want to reduce it – “she ‘k’n’ talk to him”.

Now, the word “can’t” is never reduced, alright? “I can’t do it”. “She can’t talk to him”. So even if I don’t stress it, then it’s still gonna be an A as in cat sound. “She can’t talk to him”. The word “can” is usually reduced unless you stress it. Like “yes, we can” – then it’s the proper A as in cat. “Yes, we “can. All right? So, the word “can” is pronounced as ‘k’n’; the word “can’t” is pronounced the way it’s supposed to be pronounced – ‘can’t’, it’s not reduced.

Now, for non-native speakers sometimes the A sound is pronounced as ‘eh’, ‘eh’. And the vowel pair “bed” and “bad” – sometimes it sounds the same: “bed” and “bed”. You can check out the video by the way, to help you clarify the differences. So if you feel that you do that, then make sure that in this case you don’t pronounce it as ‘kent’ ‘kent’ instead of “can’t”. Why? Because that is going to sound like you’re reducing this word. Right? And people will think that you actually mean the positive form – “can”, alright?

So, if you find yourself saying ‘kent’ instead of “can’t”, make sure that you open your mouth wide to pronounce fully the A as in cat. “I can’t do it”, and not “I ‘kent’ do it”. Okay? “I can’t do it” – “I can do it”. You can do it!

Yes. Alright. That’s it for today.

Have a wonderful week, and I will see you next week. Bye.


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