cannot read or unable to read

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yoliyoli

Senior Member
Spain and spanish
The expression in English "he/she cannot read" means that they have not learned to read, but does it also apply to someone who is unable to read for other reasons, for example, because he is blind?
How do you distinguish when you read in a document "The patient cannot read" whether it refers to the first case (doesn't know how) from the second (unable to do it, ie. blindness)?
Thanks in advance for the explanations.
 
  • Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    "He cannot read" cannot mean "He is blind" without specific context to justify it. Being unable to read does not mean being unable to see. There would be no sense in writing "the patient cannot read" if the intended meaning is "the patient is blind".
    Why can't he read? Macular degeneration, cataract, uncorrectable severe myopia .... but he's not blind.

    Distinguishing between partial vision, dyslexia and doesn't know how would be clear from the context.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    When you see the phrase out of context, your first guess is that the person never learned to read, i.e. the person is illiterate.

    However, anything may transpire in context.
     

    frenchifried

    Senior Member
    English - UK/US
    I agree with Boozer, but in the context Yoliyoli has given us, I don't think there is a clear lead as to why the patient cannot read. He or she is either blind or unsighted for whatever reason, or has not learnt to read.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I agree with frenchifried.
    He/she cannot read tells us nothing about the reasons why he/she cannot read.
     

    Nickle Sydney

    Senior Member
    I think the OP wanted an answer to a valid question on an English forum.
    I'm not trying to offend anyone or to be mean. But I believe language questions normally arise when you cannot draw a good parallel between English and your mother tongue: structures, logic etc. That's why I find it intersting that the OP (who's apparently a Spanish native speaker) came up with this question. Maybe in Spanish logic is different in this particular case?
     

    frenchifried

    Senior Member
    English - UK/US
    @graciela - but Boris has posed an interesting question. In French one could say <"He can't read>" as opposed to <"he doesn't know how to read">. [French translated by moderator for the English Only forum. DonnyB - moderator]
    In English it is the same: "He cannot read" and "he doesn't know how to read". In both cases, the latter phrases are clear. The person has not learnt to read. But there is some ambiguity in the first two in both languages. Does Spanish not have an equivalent?
     
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    Graciela J

    Senior Member
    Spanish - Argentina
    @graciela - but Boris has posed an interesting question. In French one could say <"He can't read>" as opposed to <"he doesn't know how to read">. [French translated by moderator for the English Only forum. DonnyB - moderator]
    In English it is the same: "He cannot read" and "he doesn't know how to read". In both cases, the latter phrases are clear. The person has not learnt to read. But there is some ambiguity in the first two in both languages. Does Spanish not have an equivalent?
    Do you say in French "He cannot read" to mean "he has not learn to read"? I don't think that when we hear or read someone saying in Spanish "my grandfather can't read", we would understand it to mean that the grandfather didn't learn to read, but that he has some problem with his vision. To mean that a person hasn't learn to read, we use "know".
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    The expression in English "he/she cannot read" means that they have not learned to read, but does it also apply to someone who is unable to read for other reasons, for example, because he is blind?
    How do you distinguish when you read in a document "The patient cannot read" whether it refers to the first case (doesn't know how) from the second (unable to do it, ie. blindness)?
    It's really easy. The answer is context.:)
     

    Roxxxannne

    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    One could say 'he doesn't know how to read,' in which case it would be clear that he never learned how to read. 'He's unable to read' is more likely to indicate some physical difficulty like blindness than a lack of education, although it could be used for either situation. 'He can't read' is neutral and ambiguous without context or further information.
     
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