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My last column focused on how compressing ideas in a sentence can produce a meaning opposite of what the writer intends. Example:

The family lawyer will read the will tomorrow at the home of Mr. Baxter, who died June 19 to accommodate his relatives.

If the writer of that sentence had read it aloud, the error could have become obvious, and a rewrite would have made the meaning clear.

I know, I know; this is the latest of many times I have encouraged writers to read their work aloud. But, hey, some of the best writers anywhere say it works for them.

A reader, David Therkelsen of Minneapolis, a retired nonprofit executive and former teacher at the University of Minnesota, sent me some flawed student writing:

  • He left South Texas with a law degree and a member of the honor society.
  • Since some employees lost their lives during this tragedy, it is important to remind them that they are an important part of the company.

Therkelsen laments the fact that those students needed what he calls his "writing boot camp," since their high schools failed to prepare them.

A New York Times review of a memoir called "The Critic's Daughter," by Priscilla Gilman, offers an example of how an even less obvious glitch can interrupt a reader's comprehension.

The reviewer noted: "Gilman writes that her mother never looked at her homework, stifled yawns at her school performances and threw away her dolls when she was still a preteen."

It's too easy to conclude, from the way the sentence is written, that Gilman's mother also never stifled yawns.

That's because the word "never" commands the structure of the sentence, and that word can modify "stifled yawns."

I asked the reviewer what he intended to write, and he graciously replied, "I think I could have written this better, but I meant to imply that her mother stifled yawns."

Simple solution: "Her mother threw away her dolls, stifled yawns at her school performances and never looked at her homework."

Gary Gilson conducts writing workshops online. He can be reached through