1. Telling people they can’t do something

There are different ways to tell somebody they aren’t allowed to do something.

Grammar structures and word choice telling they cannot do something change depending on how the message is delivered.

2. Speech

When speaking, the choice of structure depends on whether what is not allowed is a verb or a noun:

  • subject + cannot / (be) not allowed / must not + verb
  • subject + (be) not allowed + noun
  • noun + (be) not allowed / not permitted

Word choice sets the tone, from general common speech, to very formal speech. Tone is very important: ‘Sorry, you are not permitted to go’ is very different from screaming ‘Don’t go!’.

StructureExample sentences
commonsubject + cannot + verb1) You can’t go out tonight.
2) You can’t go, sorry.
formalsubject + (be) not allowed + verb (infinitive)1) You aren’t allowed to smoke here.
2) You aren’t allowed to see her, OK.
formalsubject + (be) not allowed + noun 1) You are not allowed dogs in this house.
2) Workers are not allowed smoking breaks.
formalnoun + is not allowed1) Running in the corridor isn’t allowed.
2) Smoking isn’t allowed in this restaurant.
very formalnoun + (be) not permitted1) Dogs aren’t permitted in the museum, sir.
2) I’m afraid lighters aren’t permitted on flights.
strongsubject + must not + verb1) You mustn’t see him again, understand?
2) You mustn’t waste our money on this rubbish.

3. Signs

Putting up signs is a common method to tell people they cannot do something.

Common structures are:

  • no + verb (ing)
  • no + noun(s)
  • no + noun(s) + allowed / permitted
  • noun + (be) not allowed / not permitted / prohibited
  • verb(ing) + (be) not allowed / not permitted / prohibited

Again, word choice will affect the tone.

StructureExample sentences
commonNo + verb (ing)1) No smoking.
2) No diving.
blunt / directNo + noun(s)1) No phones.
2) No foreigners.
formalNo + noun(s) + allowed1) No dogs allowed.
2) No entry allowed after 7pm.
formalNoun + (be) not allowed (+ place / time)1) Smoking is not allowed in the theatre at any time.
2) Children are not allowed to enter the park unsupervised.
formalVerb(ing) + (be) not allowed (+ place / time)1) Swimming is not allowed in the pool after 10pm.
2) Watching TV is not allowed before 5pm.
very formalNoun + (be) not permitted (+ place / time)1) Pets are not permitted on the plane.
2) Guests are not permitted in the hotel after 11pm.
very formalVerb(ing) + (be) not permitted (+ place / time)1) Running is not permitted in the corridors.
2) Filming is not permitted during the performance.
strict rule / lawNoun + (be) prohibited (+ place / time)1) Flash photograph is prohibited inside the cave.
2) Explosives are prohibited on the train.
strict rule / lawVerb(ing) + (be) prohibited (+ place / time)1) Smoking is prohibited at all times on board the flight.
2) Feeding the animals is prohibited.

4. The ‘friendly’ approach

Sometimes formal requests can be made using ‘friendlier’ language. These are usually made by companies or authorities who want to sound soft or friendly, but still want to tell people what to do.

These friendlier approaches ‘suggest’ people don’t do things – although they really mean ‘don’t’.

To make a soft command, use friendly words such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘appreciate’.

PhraseExample sentences
Please refrain from1) Please refrain from using flash photography.
2) Please refrain from eating or drinking in the library.
Thank you for1) Thank you for keeping our park tidy.
2) Thank you for not smoking.
We appreciate you1) We appreciate you not smoking.
2) We appreciate you not using your cell phone during the movie.

5. Exercises

1. Tell somebody they cannot:
(i) park here
(ii) bring children here
(iii) use a mobile / cell phone in this area.

2. Think of some rules for your classroom or work. How would you put these on signs (would you be clear, or use the ‘softly, softly’ approach?)