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Given the sentence,

We discourage people from committing crimes by using law enforcement, religion and education.

I see two possible interpretations:

  1. [We discourage people by using law enforcement, religion and education] from committing crimes.
  2. We discourage people from [committing crimes by using law enforcement, religion and education].

Of course the second interpretation may not make sense in this particular case, but generally speaking both interpretations are equally valid. So my question is, how to rearrange the sentence for it to be well-structured and have only one clear interpretation?

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closed as off topic by FumbleFingers, Lynn, MετάEd, tchrist, Mahnax Oct 4 '12 at 2:43

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Your second interpretation makes perfect sense to me (a native speaker), but we all "know" that the first is what is meant. I'd be interested to hear why. –  Brian Hooper Aug 10 '12 at 5:43
    
Thanks all of you a lot. I'm quite new to here and I appreciate your help. –  user24731 Aug 10 '12 at 13:24
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4 Answers 4

There is a missing comma there, I believe. It also helps to use through as suggested by @Xantix.

"We discourage people from committing crimes , through law enforcement, religion and education."

[Note the comma after ... crimes.]

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While it is unnecessary here, in general, you can:

  1. Simply break it up into two separate sentences: "We discourage people from committing crimes. We do this by using law enforcement, religion and education".
  2. Reorder it: "By using law enforcement, religion, and education, we discourage people from committing crimes".

You can also add punctuation—usually simply a comma—to demarcate problematic sections to avoid ambiguity.

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I would try:

Through law enforcement, religion, and education, we discourage people from committing crimes.

Note: this also moves away from directly saying "we use religion" which could come off as being in bad taste.

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Being in bad taste how? Only in the same way that some people walk on eggshells with any reference to religion because people get so touchy about it. –  Jez Aug 10 '12 at 8:42
    
@Jez: I agree with you in general, but in this situation, I have to agree with Xantix. The phrase "use religion" has negative connotations. Although I know what this sentence means, this phrase brings to mind the Crusades, among other (mis)uses of religious authority. –  Joel Cornett Aug 10 '12 at 9:36
    
@JoelCornett As we don't know the context of the OP's usage, that could very well be precisely what he means :) That said, "faith groups", "religious community" or similar are the watered down, PC versions that avoid unwanted attention. –  coleopterist Aug 10 '12 at 13:09
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@Jez it's more that if you are "using religion" to control people, you probably don't want to tell them that (unless you are going for some kind of reverse psychology, or reverse-reverse psychology ;). –  Xantix Aug 11 '12 at 1:24
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We use law enforcement, religion and education to discourage people from committing crime.

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