In the English language – as in other languages – many words are very similar in spelling and appearance, varying by only a letter or two but having quite different meanings. This isn’t taking into account the many homonyms that exist – words that sound exactly the same when pronounced but are spelled differently, used in a sentence differently (often as a different part of speech), and have different meaning.
Spellcheckers love homonyms because they are constantly flagging “their,” “they’re,” and “there,” asking which we mean or suggesting the use of one when we actually meant another. There’s the famous “to,” “too,” and “two” variations also. Then, there are words like “well” and “we’ll” that vary by a single punctuation mark but have such different meanings and uses. Some words are spelled exactly the same but take their meaning from the way they are used and pronounced – “lead” (the mineral) and “lead” (to show the way).
Two very similar words in use and spelling – but with very different intents and connotations – are the contractions of four letters each in length that sometimes even are used in place of each other: won’t and can’t. They really aren’t interchangable. They have remarkably different meanings, but the casual speaker or listener may not appreciate or understand the nuance. Nevertheless, it is quite clear, and it factors into discussions that we might have with our aging in place clients about improvements or changes they desire and what we might be able to do to help them.
When someone says that they can’t do something, it may mean that they physically are incapable of doing it, such as not being able to remove an item from the top shelf because of their height or the length of their reach or range of motion. It could have something to do with obstacles or barriers between them and the shelf in question. While they are willing to perform the action, they literally can’t do it physically – even with the help of a step stool or ladder.
It might have something to do with the structure itself. We might have to report to the client that a change they would like or one that we could suggest just can’t be done due to the extraordinary expense of doing it, the hardship of complying with current building codes by bringing outdated materials in line with current requirements when this is not a safety recommendation, or the complication of moving wall. In most cases, the work could be done, but it’s not a feasible request so it might be easier for the client to hear that it can’t be done – often with an explanation of why it really isn’t advisable.
It could require special training, tools, or requirements to do something, and arrangements will need to be made with that person to get it done. It’s not a forever “can’t,” but it is for now until additional resources can be brought in to assist the project.
In essence, the word “can’t” has the element of ability within it. On the other hand, “won’t” is volition. Someone may have the physical ability to help us achieve the results the client needs, but they choose not to do so – for whatever reason. While they may tell us or the client that they can’t offer the help or services we seek, what they really mean is that don’t want to or that they won’t provide it.
When a client that we are attempting to work with or a strategic partner that is going to be helping us on some phase of the project that they can’t keep a schedule appointment, look at something, afford something, do what was requested of them, or anything else where it’s possible that this is a willful choice, we should ask ourselves if they really could do it if they wanted to. If it seems to be more a matter of them not wanting to – a “won’t” – rather than “can’t,” we should see if we can clarify a point or make it easier for them to comply with what you are asking or suggesting.
That way we won’t miss an opportunity just because we didn’t look deep enough or try a little harder.
Another possibility for the word “won’t” in our home renovations is responding this way when someone asks us to cut corners, use a friend of theirs on the job that we have not vetted and may not be licensed, use an untested product in the renovation because they heard something about it, or they want us to use materials they have supplied (and that we will need to service if there is a warranty complaint or issue). Asserting our professional prerogative here is appropriate. We simply won’t risk our reputation or the safety and satisfaction of our clients by doing anything that we are not totally comfortable in providing.