Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The location of 'not'

I overheard an interesting conversation on the train this weekend. One man was telling his friend about 'the most racist moment ever on live television'. It went approximately like this (and I don't know what TV programme it was - he'd seen it on the internet):

On a television programme, some people had to choose who to give the money to out of a couple of women, a black man, and someone else of some ethnic minority (the speaker thought 'maybe Hawaiian'). Someone on this programme apparently said of the black man,
'I don't think he should get the money because he's black'. 
He apparently followed up with some justification about it giving ethnic minorities a bad name, 'always playing the victim'.

This is not great however you spin it, but there are actually (at least) two interpretations, and one is way worse than the other. It has to do with what's called the 'scope' of the negation. In other words, what is it that's negated here?

One meaning is something like this: 'I think that this man should not get the money, and the reason I think that is because he is black and I'm against black people being given money'. On this interpretation, the speaker simply doesn't want the black man to get the money.

The other is something like 'I don't think that this man should get the money simply by virtue of his being black, because racial discrimination is a bad thing even if it's positive discrimination'. On this interpretation, the speaker may decide that the black man should get the money for some other reason, but doesn't think his race should be the criterion for making the decision.

We can see what's going on if I write out those paraphrases using some formal phrasing 'it is the case that', which means something like 'the following is true', and put each part of the sentence on a new line:
It is the case that
I think that
he should not get it because he is black
It is not the case that
I think that
he should get it because he is black
You can see that the not, which I emboldened in the examples above, is in a different place in each one.

In the first one, the negation is part of the 'lowest' level of embedding and only negates the 'getting the money' situation: he should not get the money because he is black. The higher levels tell us that the speaker does indeed believe this (negated) proposition.

In the second one, the negation is 'higher up' - it negates the whole situation of the speaker thinking something. The lowest level is the proposition that he should get the money because he is black, and the not tells us that speaker does not believe this.

Maybe it's hard to follow this if you just read it through, but if you think about the two paraphrases you'll probably find you have these same two interpretations. I leave you with a joke that requires a similar scope-of-negation ambiguity:
A newly-wed couple are leaving for their honeymoon. The man says to the woman, 'Would you have married me if my father hadn't left me a fortune?', to which she replies, 'Darling, I'd have married you no matter who had left you a fortune'. 

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