What CAN vs CAN’T teaches us about the role of speech rhythm in understanding

Do you have trouble hearing the difference between CAN and CAN’T in fluent speech?

Don’t worry. The difference is often times barely audible, or not at all.

Yet, spotting the difference is crucial, as CAN and CAN’T have opposite meanings. 😀


How do fluent speakers know if someone is using the affirmative “CAN” or the negative form “CAN’T”?

And how can YOU know? 🎯

Can you make sure you understand if someone is saying “CAN” or “CAN’T”?

Can you make sure that your audience knows if YOU mean one or the other?


If the answer is “no” or “not always”, then let me show you what you can do to hear the difference better.

Pay attention to the rhythm pattern to guide you. 🔎

Let’s discover how this works in the example below.


It’s a simple but great example to discover how meaning is reflected in speech rhythm in English, and how speech rhythm can affect understanding what the speaker is saying.

This will give you an idea why working on speech rhythm can help to improve your speech clarity and comprehension in English in general. 👇


1-Minute Tip ⏳

Let’s begin with a simple example:


“I can swim” vs “I can’t swim”

They differ in their meaning (opposites).

How to know which one you hear? By trying to hear the /t/ in CAN’T?


⚠️ No! Stop worrying about the /t/ sound.

Reason: it’s not always clear to hear.


Instead, focus on the different rhythm patterns CAN and CAN’T create when they are used in context. 🎵

To help you understand what I mean by rhythm patterns, I’m going to replace the words in “I can swim” and “I can’t swim” with “di” and “DA”.


Di” is pronounced shorter.

DA” is pronounced longer and louder.


“I can swim” = di di DA

“I can’t swim” = di DA DA


Affirmative: I can SWIM

“SWIM” is louder and a bit longer than “I” and “can”.

Negative: I CAN’T SWIM

CAN’T and SWIM are louder and a bit longer than “I”.


The result is a difference in rhythm.

And this pattern is common with CAN and CAN’T in spoken English. It’s something that most learners don’t realize.

If you are one of them, I’m glad I helped you discover it. ✔️

Want to hear the difference? 🎧

I recommend watching my 3-minute video where I explain and demo this difference in more detail, including short forms and questions for further pronunciation practice.


✍️ Send me a LI message saying “CAN video” and I’ll send you the link to the video (it’s a direct link, no need to register).

As always, thanks for being my reader!

Talk to you next time.

Gábor 🙂

Connect | Gábor Légrádi | MA, RSA/CTEFLA

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