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Subject: extended survivors lists
Question: Obituaries often include lists with this grammatical structure: ''John Doe is survived by his children, Steve Doe and his wife, June; Will Doe and his wife, Janet; Susan Richards and her husband, Walter....'' It seems to me that the above is incorrect because, despite phrases like ''his wife'' and ''her husband,'' the wives and husbands still fall under the rubric of ''his [John Doe’s] children.'' So my first question would be, am I wrong about this?

According to obituary convention, you could write, ''his children, Steve (June) Doe, Will (Janet) Doe, and Susan (Walter) Richards.'' However, many families do not like how this looks. Would ''His children and their spouses'' followed by their names be right? I have some doubts about this because, without the word ''respectively,'' it’s potentially ambiguous. This brings me to my second question: Other than using parentheses, what would be the correct way to write this list?

I've asked these questions to several people and they all tend to do the same thing: they either argue that the in-laws should be left out or claim that they are ''his children'' by marriage. Both of these answers seem to be evading the question. I'm sure there are grammatical rules governing how lists like this work, rules that specify what's modifying what. From that perspective, I want to know if the above list is grammatical. If it were written like this, ''John Doe is survived by his children, Steve Doe and his dog, June; Will Doe and his cat, Janet; Susan Richards and her bird, Walter,'' would ''his children'' be including their pets?

Reply: I've seen your query rather late, having been away on holiday, but I hope the following comment may still be helpful. I would say in the first place that there is nothing to grammar other than convention(s), so if you say that the structure you quote initially is frequent in obituaries, you have in a sense answered your own question -- it is a convention of obituary-English, so by that very fact it is "correct". But I would also suggest that this convention is not specially illogical. No-one would see anything odd in a structure like "the unit comprises three main components, the cover (with a red handle), the processor (with a blue safety button), and the stand (with a black protective surround)". Here, of six items mentioned only three are presented as main components of the unit. The fact that the other three lack that status is made specially clear by the brackets, and the use of "with". In the obituary prose, it would verge on being offensive to put a wife or husband into brackets I feel, and using "with" would also tend to imply that the spouse was a mere appendage, so the writer uses "and" instead. In your alternative, treating Steve's dog as an appendage rather than something of equal status in the context is perfectly proper, so "with" is all right. But despite these slight modifications for the sake of courtesy, the overall intended sense of the obituary is clear enough, and as you say the usage is conventional; I would see it as a good convention, worth following.

Geoffrey Sampson
Reply From: Geoffrey Richard Sampson      click here to access email
 
Date: 17-Sep-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: extended survivors lists    Susan D Fischer     (08-Sep-2013)
  2. Re: extended survivors lists    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (09-Sep-2013)

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