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Just ran into this:

During the Christmas season, Christians should think about the humility, poverty and simplicity of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

Is the writer saying Christians should think about the simplicity of the birth of Jesus Christ and about poverty and humility? or it is attributing poverty and humility to the birth as well? In that case, what does poverty of birth mean? What's more, what does this should imply? suggestion, obligation or a trend?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

In a construction like the A, B, C ... and n of X, both the determiner the and the modifying participle phrase of X will ‘distribute’ over all terms in the list A, B, C ... and n.

Consequently, Christians are here called upon to think not about humility, poverty and simplicity in general but about the three specific qualities—the humility, the poverty, and the simplicity—which attended the birth of Christ.

Humility means that Christ was born of a humble family, not a powerful one; poverty, that He was born into poverty, not riches; and simplicity, that His birth was not accompanied by aristocratic ceremony or festivity, or by the care of physicians and servants, not even by a midwife.

Should implies an obligation: Christians are obliged as a consequence of their faith to give thought to these matters and not only to secular aspects of the holiday.

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Wow:) a very nice explanation and of course a very nice action done by Christians:) –  Juya Jan 21 at 3:54

Ditto StoneyB. While his interpretation is clearly correct in this case, let me point out that this type of construction is potentially ambiguous. If, for example, someone wrote, "We should plan to get dinner and sleep on the train", that could mean that we should get dinner before we leave and then we should sleep on the train, or it could mean that we should get dinner on the train and sleep on the train. If I read this sentence without any further context, I'd probably understand it to mean that we would eat on the train. But consider the very similar sentence, "We should plan to pack and sleep on the train." We would probably understand that to mean that we should pack our suitcases before we leave, and then sleep on the train, not that we will pack while we are on the train.

In your example, the placement of the word "the" helps to resolve the ambiguity. If the writer had said, "Christians should think about humility, poverty, and the simplicity of the birth of Jesus", the placement of "the" on the third phrase indicates that it is separate from humility and poverty, so I would take that sentence to mean that we should think about humility in general, poverty in general, and then simplicity specifically as it relates to the birth of Jesus. (Such a sentence would make for a rather awkward thought, but that would be the strict reading.) By putting "the" in front of all three, then if we try to separate the first two from "the birth of Jesus", we are left saying we should consider "the humility" and "the poverty" and "the simplicity of the birth of Jesus". But what is "the humility"? It doesn't make much sense. So we're forced to associate it with "the birth of Jesus" to make a coherent sentence. This kind of careful wording is often used to force the right meaning on the reader. And while analyzing it here might sound complex, to the fluent speaker it often comes across quite naturally and easily.

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Thanks a lot Jay for adding some more good points:) –  Juya Jan 21 at 5:37
    
I agree. It is the "the" that really makes it umambiguous which version is meant. –  starsplusplus Jan 21 at 16:01

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