Pronouncing “Can” versus “Can’t” correctly

Pronouncing “can” versus “can’t” correctly improves your ability to be understood. This, of course, will help you score higher on the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT.  In addition, once you know how native speakers pronounce these two troublesome words, you will better understand them when they speak to you.

Pronouncing "Can" versus "Can't"

Pronouncing “Can” versus “Can’t” correctly: “Can” uses the schwa vowel sound [ə].

Listen to the following sentences. Pay attention to how the “ə” is used with “can.”

  1. cən go to the store later on today if you like.
  2. Susan cən complete her homework assignment when she gets back from her appointment.
  3. John cən skateboard skillfully, but he does not always wear his protective headgear.
  4. Larry cən speak at meetings when he is asked, but he doesn’t particularly enjoy doing it.
  5. I cən finish doing my yardwork before we leave on our road trip to Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Can’t” uses the ash vowel sound [æ].

Listen to the following sentences which use “can’t.”  Notice how the [æ] vowel sound is used in the contraction “can’t.”

  1. Hiroko cæn’t complete all the requirements for her major until she completes her prerequisite classes.
  2. John was able to swim one mile before going back to the dock, but his friend cæn’t swim that far.
  3. Xiang Li cæn’t drive legally in the United States without his international driver’s license.
  4. Niam cæn’t get his financial guarantee until two months from now.
  5. Oscar cæn’t visit anyone right now because he has a contagious illness.

“Can” is an unstressed function word.

In addition to understanding the vowel sounds [ə] and [æ],  pronouncing “can” and “can’t” correctly also involves understanding sentence stress. Positive auxiliary verbs (i.e., “can,” was,” have, “is,”…) are typically unstressed when occurring before their main verb counterparts. The combination of unstress words such as “can” and stress words such as nouns create a natural sounding sentence rhythm.

Listen to the following sentences and pay attention to how “can” is unstressed and how the main verb is stressed.

  1. Steve knows he cən repair his car, but he can’t afford to.
  2. Children cən swim in pools so long as they are supervised by parents or qualified lifeguards.
  3. Many students do not realize that they cən pay most of their tuition through grants, scholarships, and work-study programs.
  4. Citizens cən file their tax returns without penalty through the middle of April annually.
  5. Many thieves cən steal cars, even with locked doors and security systems.

“Can’t” is a stressed function word.

On the other hand, negative function words such as “can’t” are stressed. In these cases, you should stress “can’t” and the main verb.

In the following sentences, observe how “can’t” and the main verb are stressed.

  1. Mike knows he can’t run an entire marathon, so he has decided to run a 10K instead.
  2. Because most students can’t finish their projects by the deadline, Professor Rodriquez has decided to grant a two-week extension.
  3. I can’t hear very well, especially in crowded rooms with a lot of chatter.
  4. Sometimes in Death Valley, California, tourists can’t go outside for very long because temperatures higher than 130 F cən create life-threatening situations.
  5. Workers can’t paint outside in hot weather because the paint dries too quickly on the wood, which causes it to bubble.

Pronouncing “Can” and “Can’t” correctly: Listening discrimination

Listen to each statement.  Then choose the most logical answer based on whether I use “can” or “can’t.”  This exercise gives you more practice pronouncing “can” and “can’t” correctly.


A. So she had better do her schoolwork somewhere else.

B. Indeed the library is a good place to prepare for exams.


A.  Maybe he should try weightlifting instead

B. I will run with him if he decides to race a 5K.


A. That is too bad.

B.  I’m so glad.


A.  It is good no one recognizes them so that they can keep their privacy.

B. I guess that is the price of being famous.


A. Then I will not need to bring my umbrella with me very often.

B. It rains a lot where I live too.


A. I am glad you are going.

B. It is OK if you can’t attend.


A. That is OK. I am patient.

B. I am sorry to hear that.


A. I had better start studying then.

B. Thank goodness. I was definitely not ready for the test.


A. Too bad. Maybe I can go next time.

B. Maybe I will go with them.


A.  That is why they go on walks every morning.

B. I have a grandmother who uses a wheel chair most of the time.

View Can and Can’t Listening Script

Pronouncing “Can” and “Can’t” Correctly Tips

  • During the speaking portion of the TOEFL exam, do NOT use “can’t” and other contractions such as “wasn’t,” “shouldn’t,” and others. Instead, use the full forms such as “cannot,” “was not,” and “should not.”  You will have fewer intelligibility problems if you follow this strategy.
  • Remember that most native speakers will not clearly pronounce the “t” at the end of the word “can’t.”  Instead listen for the stress.  If both words are stressed, the speaker will most likely be saying “can’t.”  On the other hand, if the speaker stresses only the main verb and not the modal auxiliary verb, the speaker will be using “can.”

Additional Pronunciation Resources

To further help you to speak more clearly, I put together my a web page. This page includes links to more pronunciation practice:

  • Master the more difficult vowel and consonant sounds.
  • Listen to authentic examples of clear and unclear speech.


Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,






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