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I am currently writing a thesis in computer science and have stumbled upon an interesting ambiguity that I would like to better understand.

Consider the following sentence:

The importance of this subject has been highlighted by the growing relevance of security, reliability and legacy code.

The intended interpretation of this sentence is:

The importance of this subject has been highlighted by the growing relevance of security, the growing relevance of reliability and the growing relevance of legacy code.

However, it may be interpreted as:

The importance of this subject has been highlighted by the growing relevance of security code, the growing relevance of reliability code and the growing relevance of legacy code.

The problem arises from the last item in the enumeration being composed of two words.

My question is, which is the correct interpretation and, if this is truly ambiguous, how can one re-word this concisely.

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    You should be using an Oxford comma. That would clear this up. – tchrist May 13 '13 at 10:37
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    If your apprehension were true, would not the last word be plural? "... relevance of security, reliability and legacy code s " (Where "... relevance of security code, reliability code and legacy code" is meant.) Your fears are clearly unfounded. NARQ :) There is no problem in the first place. – Kris May 13 '13 at 12:24
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The best (most concise) way to clear up the ambiguity is to put legacy code first.

The importance of this subject has been highlighted by the growing relevance of legacy code, security, and reliability.

Now there's no possibility of the other interpretation that you mention.

Another possibility is to add two words:

The importance of this subject has been highlighted by the growing relevance of security, of reliability, and of legacy code.

P.S.: I added the Oxford comma only because I use it and always add it when I edit, not because it clarifies anything: it doesn't. It's just a style choice and has no effect on the semantics of this sentence.

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    Thanks, I had considered moving the last item to the front, but unfortunately, it is the least relevant of the items. The latter suggestion works quite nicely. – Edd Barrett May 13 '13 at 11:07
  • @vext01: I thought that might be the case, which is why I suggested adding the two instances of "of". – user21497 May 13 '13 at 12:08
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I agree that theoretically there is an ambiguity exactly as you suggest, and I also agree with both of Bill's suggestions.

On the other hand, being familiar with the subject matter, I immediately read your sentence as intended and had to look for the ambiguity!

So (especially if the number of words or length of the document is a consideration), I would also suggest thinking about whether the intended audience for the thesis is likely consider the sentence as ambiguous.

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