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a. Tom didn't call Sally because he likes her. He doesn't like her at all. He called her because he needed her help.

b. Tim says Jack called Sally because he likes her. That's not true. Jack didn't call Sally because he likes her. As a matter of fact, Jack didn't call Sally at all.

Are the above grammatically correct and meaningful?

(I understand that the sentence 'Tom didn't call Sally because he likes her' could be used in other contexts as well (He didn't call her, and that is because he likes her... OR He does like her, but called her for another reason). I just want to know if (a) and (b) work.

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    Any "ambiguity" would normally just reflect deliberately obfuscating contrivance. It only arises because we don't normally need to be precise about the exact scope of negating not. But if we need to be clear, we can just lose the (negated) "do-support" and put it in the right place: Tom called Sally not because he likes her... Dec 28, 2023 at 18:28

2 Answers 2

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Yes, both your examples are grammatically correct and meaningful, but the first sentence of a. is ambiguous, and most people will understand the other meaning first, so it's awkward.

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This isn't entirely a question about English, but about the order of interpretation, like how in mathematics, (3+1)x4 is different from 3+(1x4).

In your text (a): "Tom didn't call Sally because he likes her. [...] He called her because he needed her help." -- This means: "The reason why Tom called Sally was not that he likes her." (He might like her, or not, but that isn't related to why he made the call.)

In your text (b): "Jack didn't call Sally because he likes her. That's just a lie. Jack didn't call Sally at all." In context, we must understand it as: J specifically chose not to call S because he likes her (e.g. "I didn't destroy Earth because I loved humans!").

You asked: "Are the above grammatically correct and meaningful?" Yes! Both (a) and (b) are syntactically and grammatically sound. They are fine sentences. But the meaning may be interpreted in different ways.

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  • Order of interpretation is part of English, semantics specifically.
    – gotube
    Oct 14, 2022 at 13:13

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