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No Sentence Is as Simple as It Sounds

I'm glad no pollsters have called to ask if I'm satisfied with the way President Clinton is doing his job. I wonder how long it would take them to explain precisely what the phrase "doing his job" means?

The UN says the "severest consequences" will result if Iraq violates the agreement worked out by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Does that warning make Saddam Hussein cringe, or chuckle?

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One thing I've learned over the years is that communication isn't just a matter of stringing words together. If language had been developed as a software program, it would make PC users crazy with all its bugs and glitches. Even the simplest declarative sentence may have elements that are vague, ambiguous, or confusing.

My ongoing struggle with mixed messages began early in life, after a visit to the beach. My mother had carefully removed my sneakers, which were filled with sand. She handed one to me and said, "Here, put this in the toilet." It seemed like an odd request, but I complied.

"Where's your shoe?" she asked when I returned, empty-handed. That's when I realized she had wanted me to dump the sand, not submerge the whole shoe in the bowl. Thankfully, sneakers dry fast.

I'm now playing the comprehension game with my daughter, and I understand why many parents fall into a negative pattern of responses. It's easy to resolve differences of opinion by saying no, stop it, don't do that. But most of life is not that simple. That's why I'm suspicious of pollsters who try to squeeze complex issues into short questions, or pundits who claim to know what Saddam Hussein is thinking.

Misunderstandings will always happen, but I have learned a few basic rules to keep myself out of trouble: (1) Think before you talk. (2) Speak clearly. (3) Listen to the other person. Of course, this isn't a foolproof system, especially when dealing with a bright third-grader.

My daughter has recently developed a knack for inventing riddles that would baffle the Great Sphinx. The other day, she drew a row of circles on a piece of paper. The circles looked like wheels in motion, and they got smaller from left to right. Then she wrote down a question and handed me the paper.

The question was, "How long will it take to figure out what's going on in this picture?" I still don't know how to respond, and I'm not even sure my daughter understands what she's asking. But we're learning to be patient with each other, and sometimes that's more important than finding the correct answer.

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* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here, Fish Cake,' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives with his third-grader in Portland, Ore.

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