an odd example of legalese

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 30 20:37:26 UTC 2012

On Jan 30, 2012, at 3:26 PM, Brian Hitchcock wrote:

> Here is what Reuters says:
> "The Le Roy school is safe," Hammond said. "The environment or an
> infection is not the cause of the students' tics. There are many causes of
> tics-like symptoms."
> ============================================
> Even the above Reuters phrasing strikes me as being off, in that it uses
> the conveniently short,  but inexact, construction:
>                    A or B  is not the cause of C
> What I infer they meant us to understand is this:
>             A is not the cause of C,  and B is not the cause of C
> Which could be succinctly put as:
>                  Neither A nor B is the cause of C
> (Do the Venn diagram.)

The Venn diagram won't help, since this would be an instance of "free choice permission", which is a misleading label for the general phenomenon of disjunctions with the force of conjunctions.  Four such cases:

(1) negation ("De Morgan's Law" contexts)
"I don't eat meat or fish" = "I don't eat meat" & "I don't eat fish"

(2) conditionals
"If you eat meat or fish, you're not a vegetarian" =
"If you eat meat you're not a vegetarian" & "If you eat fish you're not a vegetarian"

(3) "free-choice" permission and possibility contexts
"You can go to the movies or the beach" = "You can go to the movies" & "You can go to the beach"
"He could be Italian or Greek" = "He could be Italian" & "He could be Greek"

(4) generics
"Tigers live in Siberia or India" = "Tigers live in Siberia" & "Tigers live in India"

In each case, there's a true disjunctive reading possible, brought out by a continuation like "…I don't remember/know which" or "Guess which".  But all things being equal, the conjunctive reading is more likely.  The tricky thing about the example "A or B is not the cause of C" is that it doesn't obviously fall into any of these categories, but if you take it to be paraphrasable along the lines of

"Choose A or B, it doesn't matter which.  That's not the cause of C"

it's similar to the other examples.

> ---- Also, wouldn't you be more inclined to write of 'tic-like symptoms',
> rather than 'tics-like symptoms'?
Yes, I would.


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