How to tell someone they aren’t allowed to do something.

When speaking, there are different ways to tell somebody they aren’t allowed to do something.

1) you can’t (do something)
2) you aren’t allowed (to do something)
3) (something) isn’t allowed
4) (something) isn’t permitted
5) you mustn’t (do something)

1) is the most common.
2) and 3) are more formal speech.
4) is the most formal (like reading the rules)
5) is the strongest

However, how one says these also makes a big difference.

– examples

You can’t go out tonight.
You can’t go, sorry.

You aren’t allowed to smoke here.
You aren’t allowed to see her, OK?!

Running in the corridor isn’t allowed.
Smoking isn’t allowed in this restaurant.

Dogs aren’t permitted in the museum, Sir.
I’m afraid lighters aren’t permitted on flights.

You mustn’t see him again, understand?
You mustn’t waste our money on this rubbish.


When writing signs, there are also different ways:

1) no …ing
2) No (something) allowed.
3) (something) is not allowed (+ place)
4) (something) is not permitted (+ place)
5) (something) is prohibited

1) is common, because it is very clear and simple.
2) is less common, and can sound like speaking down to people.
3) and 4) are usually used with places, with 4) being more formal.
5) is the strongest, reading most like a strict rule.

– examples

No smoking
No diving

No dogs allowed.
No entry allowed after 7pm.

Smoking is not allowed in the theatre at any time.
Children are not allowed to enter the park unsupervised.

Running is not permitted in the corridors.
Guests are not permitted in the hotel after 11pm.

Smoking is prohibited at all times.
Explosives are prohibited on the train.

The ‘Softly, Softly’ Approach

Sometimes formal requests can be made using ‘friendlier’ language. These are usually made by companies or authorities who want to sound gentle.

This language ‘suggests’ people don’t do things – although it really means ‘don’t’.

1) Please refrain from…
2) Thank you for (not doing something)
3) We appreciate you (not doing something)/your (n.)

– examples

Please refrain from using flash photography.
Please refrain from eating or drinking in the library.

Thank you for not smoking.

We appreciate you not smoking.
We appreciate you not using your cell phone during the movie.


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?)