15. Reading Obstacles 8: Half-Read Sentences




Any word in a sentence can dramatically affect what all the other words say, so no word(s) should ignored during reading


Sometimes, when a sentence is long and complicated, we may feel tempted to give up reading it right to the end, believing that we have understood enough for the basic meaning, or gist, to be known. However, such a temptation should be resisted, because it can often lead to misreading and, by extension, inaccurate paraphrase (see 80. How to Paraphrase). 

The reason why error is likely in such a situation is that the unread words will often contain a meaning that completely changes the message of the whole sentence. Such words are not always present, but the possibility that they are makes it vital to read the sentence to the end. 



One type of sentence-changing word is discussed in the previous post on reading (13. Hidden Negatives). This first shows the important effect on a sentence of words with a negative meaning and then presents some lesser-known words of this type. 

Negative words are not the only ones that can radically change what the rest of a sentence is saying. Here is a quite long test instruction that was recently misunderstood by the majority of a class because it seemed that they did not read it through to the end:

(a) Explain the procedure by which a reader of an academic essay might discover the title of a book or article containing words quoted in the essay. 

Many of the students explained how to discover the title of any book or article, rather than a specific one from which an essay quotation had been taken. This meant that they wrote about library catalogues instead of essay bibliographies. It seemed they did not appreciate the words at the end of the question: containing words quoted in the essay. These words were the clue that the question was about bibliographies, requiring an answer like this: 

First read the brief reference that should be found next to every quotation in an academic essay, in order to discover the author of the quoted words and their date of publication. Then look for the same author’s name in the bibliography at the end of the essay, where the title of the relevant book or article will be written after it in italics. 

The words at the end of the question are important because they change the meaning of book or article from a general meaning (any book or article) to a particular one (only a book or article which has been quoted from in an essay). If the question is understood as being about finding the title of any book with a known author, then trying a library catalogue might be a good idea; but when the question is really about books referred to in an essay, using a library catalogue instead of the essay’s bibliography is a decidedly inefficient way of proceeding.



The traditional grammatical term for words that change the meaning of neighbouring words is “modification”. Modification is everywhere in English, and it can affect other grammar choices (see 63. Constraints on Using “the one(s)”). The type of modification discussed above can be characterized as “words after a noun that describe it like an adjective”. It has at least five forms: 

1. Verbs with a “participle” ending, either -ing or -ed (or equivalent – see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). Containing in (a) above is an example. Bracket-like commas may or may not be present. Their presence shows the noun before is being defined; their absence changes its meaning.

2. Preposition + noun, for example in London after buildings. These words give a very different meaning to the more general single word buildings. A detailed discussion of modification like this is in the posts 53. “As”, “Like” and “Such As” and 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions.

3. Who/which/that/whom/whose. Again, commas may or may not be present, and their absence changes the meaning of the noun before (see 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas). The phrase people who are not considerate does not mean the same as the single word people; it means a subgroup of people, as opposed to everyone in the world.

4. A second noun that is an alternative name or description of the first one. Commas may again be present or absent (see 77. Apposition).

5. An adjective that is not able to be in the normal pre-noun position because of some special circumstance, such as being itself modified (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).

Modification that follows its described noun is easily ignored by rushing readers because reading the noun by itself will often make them feel that they have reached a natural break in the sentence. 

Another kind of modification is a preceding noun (see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives). For example, in the phrase sports competitions the first noun sports is not the main noun, but a modifier telling the reader what kind of competitions is meant. A reader who stops reading after sports – again, as a noun, a seemingly natural break in the sentence – will miss the very important point that the phrase is about competitions and not sports in general. 

This kind of reading error is surprisingly common. An example of a phrase that produced it in a real text was the industrialization/food security conundrum in China. It is easy, if you are not careful, to think that the goes with the first of the underlined nouns, when in fact it goes with the last (conundrum, meaning “puzzle”). The rule is that using (or not using) an article always depends on the last noun when one or more modifying nouns are in front (see 38. Nouns Used Like Adjectives). A good reader seeing industrialization might think at first that the went with it, but will keep reading and, on recognizing the next word as a noun, will change their understanding of how to interpret the, and will keep doing so until the next word is not a noun.

The moral of this story, then, is to keep reading until you reach a full stop!


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