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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 is, 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?

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Why not imply that the respective husbands and wives are also his children? "I'm not losing a daughter, I'm gaining a son".. –  TsSkTo Sep 6 '13 at 11:11
    
Interesting title, but why? –  Kris Sep 7 '13 at 14:31
    
See linguistics.SE: Grammatical rules governing extended survivors lists –  hippietrail Sep 7 '13 at 16:25

3 Answers 3

I don't read obituaries, so I'm not quite sure of the structure, but I agree that the way you state it implies the spouses are his children as well.

My initial feeling is that I don't even think it's necessary to include spouses, but I would rewrite it as: John Doe is survived by his children, Steve Doe, married to June; Will Doe, married to Janet; and Susan Richards, married to Walter.

Or something like that.

Your second option, children and their spouses, makes more sense. I feel like the reader would assume his children are the ones mentioned first, but it is ambiguous.

How do the obituaries deal with grandchildren? Do they mention them?

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Personally, I see nothing significantly wrong with your original suggestion, and it contains no ambiguity:

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...."

His children are the first persons mentioned in each individual list item, so you can read it as:

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);
  • ....

I'm not suggesting that you should include the brackets - I've put them in only to make it clear that the list is primarily a list of his children. In any case, the children's spouses are children-in-law.

I think the semi-colons after each child & partner are good and add clarity in separating the list items.

You could make any of the following changes:

  • omit surnames for male children;
  • omit commas before spouses' names, and optionally, insert commas after children's names.

That would give:

John Doe is survived by his children, Steve, and his wife June; Will, and his wife Janet; Susan Richards, and her husband Walter; ...."

I'm certainly not saying that either form is better than the other: they are just slightly different styles.

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Edit2

The original version does not imply that the partner's of the children are also the deceased person's children.

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...."

AS to and expressed in your concerns about family styles; it is irrelevant the family structure.

John Doe is survived by his children, Steve Doe; Will Doe and his wife, Janet; Susan Richards and her husband, Sid; Walter and his children, Sally, Barry, and Harry; Macey and her husband, Jack, and their cat, Jasper, and Jasper's friend, the dog, Spotty; etc"

Note the use of the oxford comma in the example is optional.

As to using brackets, personally, I don't like this style in an obituary. (My opinion only)

I won't address the use of semi colons, as a debate about this is outside the scope of the question.

The use of respectively also works if the list become complex, as shown in my example following:

John Doe is survived by his children, and their partners, respectively: Steve Doe; Will Doe and Janet; Susan Richards and Sid; Walter and his children, Sally, Barry, and Harry; Macey and Jack, and their cat, Jasper, and Jasper's friend, the dog, Spotty; etc"

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My question is not about the semicolons separating the children. I know that is correct. It is about whether or not the children's spouses are categorized under "his children." And I think I've found my own answer. If you substitute animals for wives and husbands, it becomes clear that "his children" can't be modifying them. The sentence structure is the same so, if version one works, then version two should, too. But it doesn't –  Tracy Sep 6 '13 at 22:08

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