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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: As my colleague indicated, there is no official grammar for obituaries that a linguist can
rule on. As long as the participants and their relationships are generally understood
(and I would say they are), the perfect grammatical logic may not be needed.

Form personal experience I will tell you that many papers, particularly those in smaller
municipalities allow families to submit obituaries worded the way they prefer. If
wording of your own obituary is a concern, you can leave a pre-written one for your
family (they will likely appreciate it). Similarly, you can volunteer to write an obituary if
it is appropriate and that may be appreciated as well.

I would warn you that that when people are grieving and you are NOT writing the
obituary, this grammatical discussion may not be well received. You are also not likely
to change editorial policy unless you can convince others of your point of view.

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

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