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I've never understood what gave rise to these two forms for saying what seems to me to be the same thing -- can not and cannot. I use them both, but with no articulated rationale. Sometimes one "feels" right, sometimes the other.

Can anyone shed light or share thoughts on this?

From Garner's Modern American Usage:

"cannot should not appear as two words, except in the rare instances when the not is part of another construction(such as not only...but also0 -- e.g.:  'His is among very few voices that can not only get away with numbers like "You Are So Beautiful to Me" and a reggae/salsa remake of "Summer in the City," but actuall make them moving.'  Jamie Kastner, 'Joe Cocker Proves He Can Still Rock 'n' Roll,' Toronto Sun, 8 Mar. 1995, at 64.  Cannot is preferable to can't in formal writing."

From Oxford American Dictionary usage note:

Both the one word form cannotand the two word form can not are acceptable, but cannot is far more common in all contexts.  Indeed, can not has come to be so unusual that it may be read as an error.  The two-word form is advised only in a construction in which not is part of a set phrase, such as 'not only...but(also)':  'Stevenson can not only sing well, but he paints brilliant.'"

You're welcome.

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