Ambiguity Caused by Negation Followed by Causation in Conditional Clauses

Consider the following:

If I don’t go to the movies because of your nagging …

It conveys two possible meanings:

If your nagging causes me not to go to the movies …

If I go to the movies for one or more reasons other than your nagging …

I encounter this sporadically in my general writing, but I don’t recall having seen it in contracts. Have you?

Also, have you encountered any discussion of this ambiguity? Have I characterized it correctly?

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

5 thoughts on “Ambiguity Caused by Negation Followed by Causation in Conditional Clauses”

  1. A characterization comment.

    “Because” has two independent precision problems. You hint at both. Might be worth drawing them out to finer individual points.

    Your “…one or more reasons…” touches on the first: “Because” alone doesn’t distinguish necessary, sufficient, and contributing causes. This is not to say that we have finer-grained, more predictable common English to fall back on for causation tests. We don’t. Tort-speak might help, to the extent we can invoke it in contract.

    The difference between your given meanings draws out the second: “Because” is a grammatical conjunction, but not clearly a logical conjunction, at least between present tense phrases. We could try to formalize:

    Variant 1: If I don’t go to the movie because of your nagging …

    Variant 2: If I don’t go to the movie, and it’s because of your nagging …

    Let: x = “I go to the movies”; y = “you nagged”

    Variant 1′: IF (because(y, (NOT x))) THEN …

    Variant 2′: IF (NOT x) AND (because(y, (NOT x))) THEN …

    Is there any difference between Variants 1 and 2? Variants 1′ and 2′?

    In other words, are the following valid statements?:

    If “x because y”, then by implication both x and y.

    IF because(p,q) THEN p AND q.

    The etymology, quoth the Google, is M.E. “by cause”. A preposition. Not much help.

    But tense makes this interesting. Consider:

    “If I did not go to the movies because of your nagging …”

    “If I have not gone to the movies because of your nagging …”

    No more conjunction issue?

  2. I see the issue, but not what it has to do with conditional sentences.

    Rebrand it “Ambiguity Caused by Failure to Specify Which is Being Negated: (1) an Act or a State of Affairs; or (2) the cause or reason for that Act or State of Affairs,” and the issue solves itself.

    Problem sentence: “I don’t like to go there because of the smell.”

    Analysis: Failure to clarify whether the action (going there) or the reason (the smell) is being negated.

    The fix: Clearly negate either the reason or the action: (1) “It’s the sound [of the band], not the smell [of the marijuana], that makes me like to go there” (reason negated); and (2) “it’s the smell that makes me dislike going there” (action negated).

    The formulation “if I go to the movies not because of your nagging [but for one or more other reasons]” makes clear that the reason is being negated. The formulation “if I skip the movies because of your nagging,” makes clear that the action of going to the movies is being negated.

    Problem solved? Aw right!


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