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The state and local governments must take into account characteristics of family members and family types in coming up with the policies.

In the way it is expressed right now, there is no way to tell (it is ambiguous) if 'characteristics' is associated with both 'family members' and 'family types', or just 'family members'. How would you rephrase this so that this distinction is clear? (i.e. 'characteristics' should only be associated with 'family members')

Also, what would be the natural assumption, if there is any, as to the question of associativity of 'characteristics' in the given sentence?

  • Thanks for the replies, how about this: "The state and local governments must take into account characteristics of family members, as well as family types, in coming up with the policies." Does this make it more clear also, the use of 'as well as'? Or is it still the case that 'characteristics' also may be associated with 'as well as'? I think that it acts to separate "characteristics of family members" and "family types" and associate each to "take into account" - am I right on this? – Max Dec 21 '15 at 3:41
  • It separates them, but maybe a little too much. That construction is often used for when you want to draw a contrast between the two things. It sounds to me like you meant the governments were already going to consider family types, but you are advising that they should consider characteristics of family members as well. – modulusshift Dec 21 '15 at 3:52
  • It doesn't always mean that you want to draw that contrast, but it usually does. It might be confusing to some people that you don't mean to. – modulusshift Dec 21 '15 at 3:53
  • @modulusshift I see. – Max Dec 21 '15 at 3:58
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    @Max "... must take into account characteristics of family members, as well as family types, in coming up..." still doesn't disambiguate: it could be that you mean "characteristics of family members, as well as characteristics of family types". I would phrase as "... must take into account family types and the characteristics of family members..." – David Richerby Dec 21 '15 at 8:50
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I didn't think it was ambiguous, I assumed it was just referring to the family members. But if you want to make sure no one can misunderstand you, you can just change the order. "must take into account family types and characteristics of family members" is clear.

It's kinda wordy, though. I would phrase this as:

The state and local governments must take into account family composition in coming up with these policies.

(I used "these" because I assume you were just talking about the policies, so it directly refers back to the last couple sentences.)

"composition" means both the specific parts and the characteristics of those parts, as well as their arrangement and kinds and number, and so how they fit together. I think that covers the same meanings.

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To rephrase unambiguously, change the order of the items in the list, giving

The state and local governments must take into account family types and characteristics of family members in coming up with the policies.

Of course, this only works because the list has only two items and "characteristics of" applies only to one of them. For more complex constructions, such as family types, characteristics of family members and characteristics of family pets, a more significant rephrasing would be needed; perhaps something like

... must take into account family types and characteristics of both family members and pets...

The following suggestion by the asker in a comment doesn't work:

The state and local governments must take into account characteristics of family members, as well as family types, in coming up with the policies.

This is still ambiguous because it could reasonably mean "... characteristics of family members, as well as characteristics of family types..."

An alternative solution is just to ignore the "problem". Anything you might consider about a thing has to be a characteristic of that thing, so "considering family types" and "considering characteristics of family types" amounts to the same thing. This is in contrast to, for example, "I don't want to go to India because of my fear of tigers and the cost of plane tickets", which you might want to rephrase to avoid the suggestion that you're afraid of the cost of plane tickets.

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Family composition (per modulusshift) is one way to solve this, but if you want to make sure that characteristics of does not apply to family types but applies only to family members, you can simply reverse the order:

The state and local governments must take into account family types and characteristics of family members in coming up with the policies.

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The state and local governments must take into account the characteristics of both family members and family types in coming up with their new policies.

I read "characteristics of family members and family types" as one massive noun phrase.

This looks like a news article. Journalists write within the constraints of a word count and are renown for omitting articles and modifiers that, to them, add nothing to the telling of their story.

  • He was saying that "characteristics" should only refer to "family members", not both members and types. – modulusshift Dec 21 '15 at 3:36

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