Using the Anna Karenina Principle to explain why cause favors negative-sentiment complements

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Lelia Glass


This paper sets out to explain why the verb cause tends to occur with negative-sentiment complements (cause damage, cause problems), as observed by Stubbs 1995. Formalized using causal models (Pearl 2000, Halpern & Pearl 2005, Schulz 2011), the analysis hinges on the asymmetric inference patterns licensed by necessary versus sufficient causes in the common scenario where some variables in a causal model remain uncertain. States of certainty/uncertainty are captured by subdividing the traditional definitions of necessity and sufficiency into a local version (all other variables fixed at particular values) and a global version (all other variables unsettled). C causes E is argued to entail that that C is locally sufficient for E, and to implicate that C is at least possibly locally necessary for E. With this definition, it is shown that C causes E can be truthfully applied to more uncertain contexts when C is a globally sufficient cause of E rather than a globally necessary one. Cause thus tends to occur with outcomes depending on a single globally sufficient cause -- outcomes which are moreover shown to be negative in sentiment, reflecting the independently motivated “Anna Karenina Principle” that bad outcomes tend to require single sufficient causes, thus indirectly explaining why cause prefers negative-sentiment complements. The meaning and collocational sentiment of cause are used to illuminate one another.

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Lelia Glass, School of Modern LanguagesGeorgia Institute of Technology

Assistant Professor of Linguistics School of Modern Languages Georgia Institute of Technology