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How does the comma change the meaning in these statements?

a) Ms. Harris was not defeated, because she changed her position.
b) Ms. Harris was not defeated because she changed her position.

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What’s your theory? –  tchrist May 14 '13 at 23:21
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I'm wondering who up voted that comment. Lol. –  Kris May 15 '13 at 4:24
    
Asking a question about how a comma might change the meaning of a sentence is really asking a question about different ways to pronounce a sentence. If there are different meanings, you should be able to hear them. If you can't hear them, there is no difference. –  John Lawler May 15 '13 at 14:20
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3 Answers

The form with the comma is unambiguous: changing her position was the reason for not being defeated.

The form without the comma is ambiguous, as it may represent either of two senses (which would be distinguished by intonation in speech). One has the same meaning as with the comma; the other implies (though not conclusively) that she was defeated, but says that changing her position was not the reason for that defeat. In the second sense, it would usually be followed by something like but because she made a poor showing in the debate.

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Here's one answer from the Chicago Manual of Style, here's another: {pink box at mid-page}, & here's a third.

The rule is:

Use the comma when the information in the clause that follows because is not *essential* for the sentence.

In your sentence "a", the information after because not essential: the only important information is that Ms. Harris was not defeated. In sentence "b", which is unclear, the information after because is essential: it says that reason she was defeated was not that she changed her opinion, but, e.g., as Colin Fine says, she may have argued her position poorly, or her opponent may have changed his position, or she may have been mean and spiteful in the debate. We don't know why she lost, but we do know that it wasn't because she changed her opinion.

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I read sentence b. as referring to Ms Harris - not her opponent - changing her position. –  TrevorD May 15 '13 at 11:56
    
@TrevorD: Yes, you're right. I've edited my answer to reflect that fact. Thank you for pointing out my lack of clarity & obvious misreading. –  user21497 May 15 '13 at 14:29
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Complementing the earlier answers, sentence b. would be clearer if it were re-worded (and expanded) alone the lines:

Ms. Harris was defeated not because she changed her position, but because ...

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