Chapter 8 – Coming to Terms with an Author (part 2 of 3)


So far we have been proceeding negatively by eliminating the ordinary words. You discover some of the important words by the fact that they are not ordinary for you. That is why they bother you. But is there any other way of spotting the important words? Are there any positive signs that point to them?

There are several. The first and most obvious sign is the explicit stress an author places upon certain words and not others. He may do this in many ways. He may use such typographical devices as quotation marks or italics to mark the word for you. He may call your attention to the word by explicitly discussing its various senses and indicating the way he is going to use it here and there. Or he may emphasize the word by defining the thing that the word is used to name.

Every field of knowledge has its own technical vocabulary. … If that author has not pointed out the words himself, the reader may locate them through having some prior knowledge of the subject matter.

Where a field of knowledge has a well-established technical vocabulary, the task of locating the important words in a book treating that subject matter is relatively easy. You can spot them positively through having some acquaintance with the field, or negatively by know what words must be technical, because they are not ordinary. Unfortunately, there are many fields in which a technical vocabulary is not well established.

Philosophers are notorious for having private vocabularies. … [they] often find it necessary to coin new words, or to take some word from common speech and make it a technical word. This last procedure is likely to be most misleading to the reader who supposes that he knows what the words means, and therefore treats it as an ordinary word. Most good authors, however, anticipating just this confusion, give very explicit warning whenever they adopt the procedure.

In this connection, one clue to an important word is that the author quarrels with other writers about it. When you find an author telling you how a particular word has been used by others, and why he chooses to use it otherwise, you can be sure that word makes a great difference to him.

We have here emphasized the notion of technical vocabulary, but you must not take this too narrowly. The relatively small set of words that express an author’s main ideas, his leading concepts, constitutes his special vocabulary. They are the words that carry his analysis, his argument. … these are the words that are most important for him. They should be important for you as a reader also, but in addition any other word whose meaning is not clear is important for you.


The trouble with most readers is that they simply do not pay much attention to words to locate their difficulties. They fail to distinguish the words that they do not understand sufficiently from those they do. All the things we have suggested to help you find the important words in a book will be of no avail unless you make a deliberate effort to note the words you must work on to find the terms they convey. The reader who fails to ponder, or at least to mark, the words he does not understand is headed for disaster.

If you are reading a book that can increase your understanding, it stands to reason that not all of its words will be completely intelligible to you. If you proceed as if they were all ordinary words, all on the same level of general intelligibility as the words of a newspaper article, you will make no headway toward interpretation of the book. You might just as well be reading a newspaper, for the book cannot enlighten you if you do not try to understand it.

Most of us are addicted to non-active reading. The outstanding fault of the non-active or undemanding reader is his inattention to words, and his consequent failure to come to terms with the author