Chapter 8 – Coming to Terms with an Author (part 1 of 3)


You are now ready to go on to the next stage, which also comprises four rules of reading.

Coming to terms is the first step beyond the outline. … For a term is the basic element of communicable knowledge.


A term is not a word – at least, not just a word without further clarifications. … If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms.

For the communication to be successfully completed, therefore, it is necessary for the two parties to use the same words with the same meanings – in short, to come to terms. When that happens, communication happens, the miracle of two minds with but a single thought.

You cannot find terms in dictionaries, though the materials for making them are there. Terms occur only in the process of communication. … we can think of terms as a skilled use of words for the sake of communicating knowledge.

RULE 5. FIND THE IMPORTANT WORDS AND THROUGH THEM COME TO TERMS WITH THE AUTHOR. Note that the rule has two parts. The first part is to locate the important words, the words that make a difference. The second part is to determine the meaning of the words, as used, with precision.

As we have pointed out, each of the rules of interpretive reading involves two steps. … we may say that these rules have a grammatical and logical aspect. The grammatical aspect is the one that deals with words. The logical step deals with their meanings or, more precisely, with terms. So far as communication is concerned, both steps are indispensable. If language is used without thought, nothing is being communicated. And thought or knowledge cannot be communicated without language.

This business of language and thought – especially the distinction between words and terms – is so important that we are going to risk being repetitious to be sure that main point is understood. The main point is that one word can be the vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words. Let us illustrate this schematically in the following manner. The word “reading” has been used in many senses in the course of our discussion. Let us take three of these senses: By the word “reading” we may mean (1) reading to be entertained, (2) reading to get information, and (3) reading to achieve understanding.

Now let us symbolize the word “reading” by the letter X, and the three meanings by the letters a, b, and c. What is symbolized in the scheme by Xa, Xb, and Xc, are not three words, for X, remains the same throughout. But they are three terms, on the condition, of course, that you , as reader, and we, as writers know when X is being used in one sense and not another. If we write Xa in a given place, and you read Xb, we are writing and you are reading the same word, but not in the same way. The ambiguity prevents or at least impedes communication. Only when you think the word as we think it, do we have one thought between us. Our minds cannot meet in X, but only in Xa or Xb or Xc. Thus we come to terms.


We are now prepared to put flesh on the rule that requires the reader to come to terms. How does he go about doing it? How does he find the important or key words in a book?

You can be sure of one thing. Not all the words an author uses are important. Better than that, you can be sure that most of his words are not. Only those words that he uses in a special way are important for him, and for us as readers.

An author uses most words as men ordinarily do in conversation, with a range of meanings, and trusting to the context to indicate the shifts. Knowing this fact is some help in detecting the more important words.

Contemporary writers will employ most words as they are ordinarily used today, and you will know which words these are because you are alive today. But in reading books written in the past, it may be more difficult to detect the words the author is using as most people did at the time and place he was writing.

Nevertheless, it remains true that most of the words in any book can be read just as one would use them in talking to one’s friends.

If you do understand the passage, you will, of course, know which words in it are the most important. If you do not fully understand the passage, it is probably because you do not know the away the author is using certain words. If you mark the words that trouble you, you may hit the very ones the author is using specially. That this is likely to be so follows from the fact that you should have no trouble with the words that author uses in an ordinary way.

From your point of view as a reader, therefore, the most important words are those that give you trouble. It is likely that these words are important for the author as well. However, they may not be.

It is also possible that words that are important for the author do not bother you, and precisely because you understand them. In that case, you have already come to terms with the author. Only where you fail to come to terms have you work still to do.