Not awarding the Purple Heart

In an earlier posting about an example from the New York Times, I looked at the way a because-clause was to be interpreted in that example. In a comment on my posting, Chris Waigl noted that the main clause in this example itself presented an issue of interpretation. Somewhat simplified, the relevant part of this clause is:

(1) The Pentagon will not award the Purple Heart to war veterans who suffer from PTSD.

As I said in a reply to Chris’s comment,  this can be understood as conveying either ’suffering from PTSD does not qualify someone for the Purple Heart’ (what was intended in the original) or ’suffering from PTSD disqualifies someone for the Purple Heart’ (the way Chris took it). Call these the ‘fail to qualify’ and the ‘disqualify’ understandings, respectively.

Larry Horn has now e-mailed me to shed some light on the matter.

Chris compared (1) to an example she googled up, somewhat simplified here:

(2) He will not award ambassadorships to people who provided financial support for his campaign but have little foreign service or foreign policy background.

(which has the disqualify understanding).

Larry Horn (who I appealed to in his role as Dr. Negation) replied on the 14th:

I suspect this is more a matter of implicit domain restriction or ceteris paribus conditions than negation per se, although I did a double-take myself when I read that quote in a Times editorial last night (approving the policy but asking for more general understanding for PTSD sufferers).

The sense is presumably “will not award the Purple Heart on the basis of PTSD” or “will not award the PH to war veterans for PTSD”.  I’m not sure [(2)] is as parallel as, say, “I don’t thank someone who holds the door open for me”, which does not commit me to refusing to thank a person who holds the door open for me and, while or immediately after doing so, hands me a bottle of single-malt scotch and then compliments me on my new overcoat.  The sense there is “thank someone for holding the door open”, but it can be (somewhat imprecisely, perhaps) be expressed via the relative clause, reduced or not.

But this isn’t limited to negative contexts.  If I say I thank someone who holds the door open for me, this doesn’t extend to someone who holds the door open for me and while doing so hits me on the head with a bottle of single-malt scotch and runs off with my new overcoat.  It’s all in the ceteris paribus.

So we have various apparently general assertions that aren’t in fact interpreted as strict universals, but are to be interpreted with a ceteris-paribus, or ‘usually’, rider — a familiar phenomenon in the understanding of generic sentences like “Linguists are fond of Chinese food” — in combination with a syntax that tucks part of the expression of genericity down in a relative clause.

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