John did not come because of the rain.

This sentence seems to allow the following two completely different interpretations.

  1. John did not come. And the reason was the rain.
  2. John came. But the reason was not the rain.


A. How does this ambiguity arise? Is it because of negation?

B. What is the easiest way to avoid this ambiguity?

  • 1
    In the spoken form this is easily disambiguated with intonation. Rain spoken, as a statement,with a descending tone is used for #1. Rain spoken with tone starting high, going lower for the vowel and rising again at the end, as if you were to follow it with, "but because he got a flat tire." is used for #2. – Jim Jul 23 '14 at 4:27
  • 1
    Just FTR. For complete clarity in writing, always use more, not less sentences. Generally, if your aim/need is absolute, total, clarity - use more not less sentences. (Note that this is, precisely, what you did in the two numbered explanatory examples.) – Fattie Jul 23 '14 at 7:47
  • I'm afraid I disagree with Jim. It is not disambiguated, at all, in spoken speech, and intonation is unrelated. – Fattie Jul 23 '14 at 7:49
  • "What is the easiest way to avoid this ambiguity?" It's a horrible, completely ambiguous sentence, which cannot be fixed by moving a word around. It needs to be completely different, almost certainly two sentences (exactly as in your examples). – Fattie Jul 23 '14 at 7:53
  • 3
    Wouldn't it be more common to express the second meaning as "John did not come for the X"? That's also ambiguous, but it's more common to express the idea of coming for some reason other than X. Of course, the real disambiguation is in the relatively desirability of X; "rain" is not desirable, "pretzels" are, so "John did not come because of the rain", "John did not come because of the pretzels", "John did not come for the rain" and "John did not come for the pretzels" all fundamentally derive their meanings from this distinction. – Dan Bron Jul 23 '14 at 13:40

The ambiguity occurs because of the way that adjectives bind to the (normally) closest phrase.

Consider a parallel:

I still have sand in my shoes from Hawaii.

What is from Hawaii? The sand or the shoes?

(Edit 1. Note that there is an ambiguity in the sentence that does not involve negation.)

When I read the example, the first interpretation came to mind, probably because not was closer to come than to rain.

You could avoid the ambiguity in different ways.

(Edit 2. Removing "John didn't come because of the rain." as it does not remove the binding ambiguity.)

A. John did not come, as the torrential rain prevented him. (Slight expansion lessens the ambiguity.)

B. John came, not because of the rain, but driven by his longing for Helen. (Explanation makes it clearer in the reader's mind.)

  • 10
    To me, "John didn't come because of the rain" has exactly the same ambiguity as the non-contracted version. – Marthaª Jul 23 '14 at 3:25
  • Contracting the negation does nothing to remove the ambiguity for me either. Another very easy way to avoid ambiguity if the first is meant, is to switch the order of the phrases: “Because of the rain, John didn’t come”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '14 at 6:45
  • I'm afraid this answer is so wrong I had to downvote it! I agree with Marthastar and Janus. – Fattie Jul 23 '14 at 7:49
  • I admit that I had trouble getting the OP's interpretation 2, and was likewise blinded to my first rewrite A with didn't. I'm editing the answer. – rajah9 Jul 23 '14 at 13:16

This is usually discussed under the label 'the semantic scope of negation'. If you use curly brackets to enclose a semantic unit, this becomes clear.

Your first meaning has the semantic structure {not + {John came}} + {because of the rain}, and the second has the semantic structure {not + {John came because of the rain}}.

As Jim noted, the meaning is often clear in speech, whether 'because of the rain' is said as a separate tone unit or not. In the first interpretation is constitutes another semantic unit, and so would be spoken with a separate tone unit.

In writing, for the first meaning, consider fronting 'because of the rain' because this signals that it is a separate semantic unit: Because of the rain, John did not come. I am happy with Rajah's suggestion of moving not to before because for the second meaning.

  • 1
    I'm afraid the tone-unit concept is totally wrong. Choose one (of any of the possible) tonal approaches to the sentence, and make the tonality as aggressive as possible. Say it over and over - it's still a rorschach sentence. – Fattie Jul 23 '14 at 7:51

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