2

She did not buy the cell phone because her sister had one.

Does the sentence has the following three interpretations?

  1. She bought the phone not because her sister had one.
  2. She didn't buy the cell phone not because her sister had one.
  3. Her sister having a cell phone was the reason for her not buying one.
  • 1
    1 and 3 are possible. – snailcar Sep 15 '14 at 2:17
  • To me, the 3rd sentence is possible. – Maulik V Sep 15 '14 at 5:05
  • This is a classic topic. Even dictionaries discuss this topic in their usage notes in their "because" entry. (E.g. When because follows a negative construction, the meaning can be ambiguous.) I think there's even a current discussion going on about it over in the linguistics site: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/8999/… – F.E. Sep 17 '14 at 17:34
2

She did not buy the cell phone because her sister had one.

We do not know whether she actually bought the phone. There are two possibilities: she bought it, or she did not buy it.

If she bought it, the sentence only makes sense if we interpret is as statement that the mentioned reason was not the reason for the action:

She bought the phone, but not because her sister has one. (your sentence 1)

If she did not buy the phone, the sentence makes sense as a statement that the mentioned reason was the reason for not buying the phone:

Because her sister has one, she did not buy the phone. (your sentence 3)

Your sentence 2 (She didn't buy the cell phone not because her sister had one) seems to have an extra negation in it. She did not buy the phone and the reason was not that her sister had one. Apart from this logic making my head hurt, I think that since the original sentence has one negation, you cannot just add another one without changing the meaning.

It is very interesting to see that the sentence as you put it can be interpreted in two very different ways. If we do not know whether "she did not buy the phone" is true, we do not know what the second part means.

Basically, if we interpret it as your sentence 1 (she bought the phone for other reasons than her sister having one), we apply the not to because, instead of the verb buy.

We can, interestingly, not do this if we change the order of the clauses:

Because her sister had one, she did not buy the cell phone.

This is the same sentence as your original, just in a slightly different order, and now we know she did not buy the cell phone. We can no longer read your sentence 1 into it, we can no longer link not to because!

-2

All three versions are grammatically incorrect.

  1. She bought the phone not because her sister had one, but to...
  2. She didn't buy the cellphone because her sister had one.
  3. Her sister having a cellphone was the reason for her not to buy one.

If you rephrase them like this, number 2 and number 3 would be correct interpretations. The first one has a different meaning, along the lines of people thinking she bought the phone because she was jealous of her sister having one, while that was in fact not her reason, but something else.

  • 1
    You changed the meaning of 2) considerably before saying it's correct. Actually, it's the original sentence, and not even an interpretation anymore. And are you saying that 1) is not a correct interpretation? – oerkelens Sep 17 '14 at 12:57
  • You could apply the same changes to 2) as I did to 1) but it change the meaning of the original sentence as well. I just wanted to show two ways the sentence could be interpreted. I believe the author used the middle 'not' as a mistake in both 1) and 2) and I wanted to show two different ways to change it. The way the author wrote it would be the same meaning (She bought the phone not because her sister had one.) but its not correct as you can't say 'bought it not', you'd have to say 'did not buy it'. If you change it that way, you get number 2). – Sirence Sep 17 '14 at 13:02
  • 1
    Your sentence 2 is the same sentence as the original. I have really no idea what you think you are "interpreting". You are saying that a sentence X can be interpreted as sentence X. That is true, but useless to say. It is true for every sentence. The only difference between the original sentence and your version 2 is that you changed "did not" to "didn't". I did not sleep means I didn't sleep, but that is hardly useful information in the context of the question. – oerkelens Sep 17 '14 at 13:10
  • I think instead of just rephrasing the sentences, it would be helpful to explain why they are grammatically incorrect. The third sentence in particular is tricky, because it sounds OK to me. What is grammatically incorrect about "The sales clerk said that the customer's sister having a cell phone was the reason for her not buying one." It would be clearer to say "She didn't buy a cell phone because her sister has one." but that doesn't mean it is incorrect. – ColleenV Sep 17 '14 at 14:04
  • In my opinion it is wrong because the use of 'not buying' is a progressive, while I'd see the action as a thing that is a completed step in the past. Of course, now that I think about it, it could be that she is considering it over a longer period of time and will do it as soon as her sister stops having one. – Sirence Sep 17 '14 at 14:43

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