• Lynne Phillips

Bad Language




“There’s no such word as can’t”. *


How often did we hear this from our teachers when we were younger? Or from our parents? And how often were we left with a feeling of frustration and the knowledge that, actually, there is such a word as ‘can’t, and sometimes, it’s exactly the word we need?


“I can’t play this piece.”“I can’t play it hands together.”“I can’t get the fingering right.”“I can’t voice the fugue.”“I can’t improvise on that theme.”“I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.”


If our reply to all of the above is, “Yes, you can”, or “There’s no such word as ‘can’t”, we only leave a feeling of irritation and inadequacy in a student who is adamant (and quite correct) in their assumption that they ‘can’t do it’.


How do we change this around? By adding a single word – ‘yet’


Negative language such as “I can’t play this piece” is destructive. Telling somebody they have to say they can do something when they obviously can’t is just as destructive, only serving to reinforce a feeling of failure by not allowing a student to voice their concerns and feelings.

Insisting on the use of the word “yet”, however, can turn a bad situation around…


“I can’t play this piece yet.”“I can’t play it hands together yet.”“I can’t get the fingering right yet.


If we ask the student to also work in a “but”, and a solution, then we have turned a destructive situation into a positive experience.


“I can’t voice the fugue yet, but with some more very slow work this week, I will be able to manage it.”“I can’t improvise on that theme yet, but if I spend a few minutes each day mucking about with it and not stressing out about being perfect, I will be able to manage something small by next lesson.”“I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto yet, but I have only been learning for a year, so that’s fair enough! If I keep having lessons, keep practising, and keep enjoying the piano, I might be able to play it one day!”


Can’t is indeed a word. It’s a perfectly valid word. Sometimes it’s even the right word. But it should never be used in isolation.




*Disclaimer – Grammatically speaking, can’t is a contraction; cannot is the correct syntax. Congratulations and a grammar sticker to anybody who spotted this.

Ain’t colloquialisms just champion?