can you not

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Hidden behind the Keurig in our departmental office, I've been noticing a gawky, ungainly, stray coffee mug with these three words on the side:




No capitalization and no punctuation.

I was mystified.  Whatever could that mean?  I can imagine an arch, haughty, snotty person saying that to someone implying that they don't want the person to whom they're talking to do whatever it is they're doing.  In essence, I suppose it means "You're bothering / bugging / annoying me"; "stop doing that"; "get lost".

I don't know when this expression became popular, but it was on t-shirts five years ago, though with a question mark at the end. 


Selected readings


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 9:34 am

    I can't even.

  2. Livingstone Sagonda said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 10:22 am

    Do you ever

  3. Lillie Dremeaux said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 10:36 am

    Well, I never.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 10:52 am

    I love these triverbal bon(s) mots! Had me laughing soooooo hard.

    Sorry for breaking the splendid string, but I just had to express my pleasure and gratitude.

    Now, back to the game:


    Wish I could

  5. Robert Tess said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 11:55 am

    Not my kid

  6. Eric said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 2:18 pm

    Bless your heart . . .

  7. Karl Weber said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 3:55 pm

    Oh, I say!

  8. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 4:04 pm

    Don’t go there

  9. Haamu said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 4:52 pm

    This takes us slightly off the beaten path, but I can't resist noting that any time I see 3 words in a vertical stack of uncertain meaning, I'm reminded of a classic puzzle by Henry Dudeney that first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1918:

    [A man] had sent home a letter simply addressed :–




    and it was safely delivered. Those Post Office people are very smart. Can any of you read that address in its completeness?

    The answer was given the following month.

  10. David Morris said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 6:16 pm


  11. David Morris said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 6:17 pm

    (or rather)

  12. Viseguy said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 7:10 pm

    Yes I can. But I won't.

  13. JPL said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 8:10 pm

    Yes, you could.

    That was my first interpretation. The quest to solve a problem is at an impasse; the three words idiomatically preface the exploring of what is possible, the previously neglected and unimagined.

  14. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 9:10 pm

    Do not like

    Don’t be silly.

    Come in now!

    Hold my hand

    Stay in line

    Stand up straight

    Please don’t leave

    Come back soon

  15. Don said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 9:13 pm

    How about no?

  16. Chau said,

    March 24, 2023 @ 9:35 pm

    You dare say

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 6:58 am

    As a matter of fact, in my own mind I began this post — after pondering the adage on the ungainly coffee mug ("can you not") — by considering how one might say this in Mandarin. What came into my mind was "nǐ néng bù 你能不", which is the first two thirds of the very common Mandarin utterance meaning "can you", viz., "Nǐ néng bù néng 你能不能", lit., "you can not can".

    Now for another widely known English triverbal utterance that superficially somewhat resembles the one on the coffee mug, but means something quite different:






    Means "I am unable to do it".

    This has been around for much longer than the Hall and Oates megahit (main title "I Can't Go for That") — Philadelphia and Temple can be proud of the duo.

    Wiktionary says "no can do" comes from Chinese Pidgin English, calquing Chinese bùnéng zuò 不能做 (“cannot do”).

    Phrase no can do "it is not possible" is attested from 1827, a locution of English-speaking Chinese noted 19c. in China, Australia, and the West Coast of the United States.

    We repeated our advice again and again, but got no answer but a loud horse-laugh, and their national maxim of No can do: Europe fashion no do in China. ["Reminiscences of a Voyage to and from China," in Paxton's Horticultural Register, London, 1836]


    can-do (adj.)

    "confident of performance," by 1952, from expression can do "it is possible" (1903), literally "(I or we) can do (it)," which is perhaps based on earlier no can do (see no).


  18. yandoodan said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 12:30 pm

    Bunthorne. I dare say!
    Jane. So do I! I dare say!

    From William Gilbert's libretto for Patience.

  19. David Marjanović said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 12:32 pm

    "Can you not" was in common use among Young People On The Internet some 10 years ago and meant "you keep doing this annoying (or worse) thing as if you're incapable of not doing it; would it kill you to not do it? Stop already!"

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 12:58 pm

    can you not = 能别吗 or some such

  21. Jerry Packard said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 1:08 pm

    Cha diar mei X
    As in Ta cha diar mei lai
    Is ambiguous, meaning both:
    She almost didn’t come
    She didn’t come (but just barely)

  22. David Deden said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 9:17 pm


  23. bks said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 6:54 am

    Sounds typically British. "Can you not X?" Where X is anything mildly annoying to the speaker.

  24. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 4:04 pm

    "Can you not X ?" sounds too assertive to me, as a native speaker of &lr;Br.E> — I would prefer "Could you not …, please ?".

  25. ajay said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 5:37 am

    There is a long-running campaign to discourage bullying and abuse of public-sector workers in Scotland – doctors, bus drivers, nurses and so on – consisting of posters which ask, in large letters:

    (In English, "Are you going to not do that?", or in other words "Let me suggest that you not do that", or, I suppose, "can you not".)

  26. mchaver said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 4:20 am

    何必問 he2bi4wen4 (Why do you need to ask?)

  27. R. Fenwick said,

    April 16, 2023 @ 7:22 am


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