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I got faced with a paragraph - while translating a book - that I don't understand much. The paragraph says:

Furthermore, chains of command between the federal, state and local agencies involved in law enforcement and CPS are often unclear in unusual, fast-moving crises like the Waco standoff.

Does it mean chains of command between federal, state and local agencies and CPS, or does it mean that these agencies are involved in law enforcement and CPS?

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    What is CPS? Child Protective Services? Crown Prosecution Service? Something else? I think you'll have to judge from context what the book is talking about.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 6, 2021 at 12:33
  • Child Protective Services Dec 6, 2021 at 12:41
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    Probably, CPS is an agency, so ' ... chains of command between (a) the federal law enforcement agency/agencies, (b) the state law enforcement agency/agencies, (c) the local law enforcement agency/agencies, and (d) CPS ...' would be the reading. But if CPS is an operation / sphere of activity, ' ... chains of command between (a) the federal law enforcement and CPS agency/agencies, (b) the state law enforcement and CPS agency/agencies, and (c) the local law enforcement and CPS agency/agencies ...'. Dec 6, 2021 at 12:45
  • Exactly, its an agency, which means that your first reading is the correct one. thanks a lot mate Dec 6, 2021 at 12:49
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    The basic construction here is between X and Y, and the way to decide what falls into category "X" and what falls it category "Y" is simply to look for the last instance of the conjunction "and" that could feasibly be relevant. In this case, that means X = the federal, state and local agencies [that are involved in law enforcement], and Y = CPS. Note that even if the text had ended with ...in unusual and fast-moving crises like the Waco standoff, we wouldn't say Y = fast-moving crises because that wouldn't make sense (so it's not a "credible" candidate). Dec 6, 2021 at 14:46

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The sentence is correct, even though I (and I suspect, many others) had to read it twice to be sure I had understood it correctly. To avoid this kind of situation, a writer has to think about how a reader unfamiliar with the background will receive it. Any reader could very well have trouble with nested references. Here we have a massive tripartite subject noun phrase;-

chains of command (between the federal, state and local agencies {involved in law enforcement and CPS})...

The verb phrase that follows explains that these relationship are not always clear. The sentence as a whole is asking the reader to grasp a major feature of the constitutional arrangements in the USA and at the same time understand a problem that arises out of the nature of those arrangements.

If the writer is not subject to fierce character limits, it is easy (and considerate) to find another way.

Because federal, state and local agencies for law enforcement and CPS operate largely independently, chains of command between them are too unclear to deal decisively with unusual, fast-moving crises like the Waco standoff. (235 compared with 175)

For the extra 60 characters you get a sentence that takes you logically through the argument. "Because" (8 characters, including a space) tells you that something is going to be explained by what immediately follows, namely, the fact that the three tiers of agency are largely independent. Now the main clause is free to make the point, referring to the complex subject with the demonstrative pronoun, them.

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  • Interesting. Yet you do think that what the writer means is "these agencies are involved in law enforcement and CPS" not the other, which is "chains of command between federal, state and local agencies and CPS"? FumbleFingers suggests "look for the last instance of the conjunction (and)" Dec 6, 2021 at 17:28
  • FF is, as always, reliable, and I think we understand the sentence in the same way. My point is only that while the sentence does make sense as written, it is not as easy to read as it could be.
    – Tuffy
    Dec 6, 2021 at 17:35
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The sentence seems clear enough . . .

Chains of command are often unclear in unusual, fast-moving crises like the Waco standoff.

Which chains of command?
The ones between the federal, state, and local agencies

Which federal, state, and local agencies?
The ones that are involved in law enforcement and CPS.

Chains of command [ between the federal, state, and local agencies { that are involved in law enforcement and CPS } ] are often unclear in unusual, fast-moving crises like the Waco standoff.

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  • Apparently, 'being involved in CPS' is akin to 'being involved in NASA'. CPS is an agency, not an activity. 'Clear enough' seems inaccurate. Dec 6, 2021 at 18:49
  • @EdwinAshworth: Child protective services is a system of services provided by agencies of different names. So that's not a problem. Nonetheless, I now understand the two interpretations. And, after looking at the source article to read the sentence in context, I see my interpretation might be incorrect. I will edit my answer. Dec 6, 2021 at 19:55
  • @EdwinAshworth: Okay, never mind, I am sticking with my original interpretation. Here's the source article: Stairway to Heaven: Treating children in the crosshairs of trauma Dec 6, 2021 at 20:03
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    Yes. Child protective services is a system of services provided by agencies. That's correct. Yet, When CPS is used, it refers to these agencies which are scattered all over the US. Wiki says: "Child protective services (CPS) is the name of a government agency in many states of the United States responsible for providing child protection, which includes responding to reports of child abuse or neglect." Dec 6, 2021 at 20:56

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