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


Spotting the important words is only the beginning of the task. It merely locates the places in the text where you have to go to work. … Let us suppose you have marked the words that trouble you. What next?

First, try to determine whether the word has one or many meanings. If it has many, try to see how they are related. Finally, note the places where the word is used in one sense or another, and see if the context gives you any clue to the reason for the shift in meaning. This last will enable you to follow the word in its change of meanings with the same flexibility that characterizes the author’s usage.

But, you may complain, everything is clear except the main thing. How does one find out what the meanings are? … The answer is that you have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words the context that you do understand. The must be the way, no matter how merry-go-roundish it may seem at first.

Most of the words in any English book are familiar words. These words surround the strange words, the technical words, the words that may cause the reader some trouble. The surrounding words are the context for the words to be interpreted. The reader has all the materials he needs to do the job.

We are not pretending the job is an easy one. We are only insisting that it is not an impossible one.

There is no rule of thumb for doing this. The process is something like the trial-and-error method of putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The more parts you put together, the easier it is to find places for the remaining parts, if only because there are fewer of them. … A word in place is a term. … Each word put into place makes the next adjustment easier.

You should not forget that one word can represent several terms. One way to remember this is to distinguish between the author’s vocabulary and his terminology. If you make a list in one column of the important words, and in another of their important meanings, you will see the relation between the vocabulary and the terminology.

There are several further complications. In the first place, a word that has several distinct meanings can be used either in a single sense or in a combination of senses. Let us take the word “reading” again as an example. In some places, we have used it to stand for ready any kind of book. In others, we have used it to stand for reading books that instruct rather than entertain. In still others, we have used it to stand for reading that enlightens rather than informs.

Now if we symbolize here, as we did before, these three distinct meanings of “reading” by Xa, Xb, and Xc, then the first usage just mentioned is Xabc, the second is Xbc, and the third Xc. In other words, if several meanings are related, one can use a word to stand in for all of them, for some of them, or for only one of them at a time. So long as each usage is definite, the word so used is a term.

In the second place, there is the problem of synonyms. The repetition of a single word over and over is awkward and boring, except in mathematical writing, and so good authors often substitute different words having the same or very similar meanings for important words in their text.

We can express the symbolically as follows. Let X and Y be two different words, such as “enlightenment” and “insight.” Let the letter a stand for the same meaning that each can express, namely, a gain in understanding. Then Xa and Ya represent the same term, though they are distinct as words. When we speak of reading for “insight” and reading “for enlightenment,” we are referring to the same kind of reading because the two phrases are being used with the same meaning. The words are different, but there is only one term for you as a reader to grasp.

This is important, of course. If you supposed that every time an author changed his words, he was shifting his terms, you would make a s great an error as to suppose that every time he used the same words, the term remained the same. Keep this in mind when you list the author’s vocabulary and terminology in separate columns. You will find two relationships. On the one hand, a single word may be related to several terms. On the other hand, a single term may be related to several words.

In the third place, and finally, there is the matter of phrases. If a phrase is a unit … Like a single, it can refer to something being talked about in some way. … It follows, therefore, that a term can be expressed by a phrase as well as by a word.


This has been a hard chapter to write, and probably a hard one to read. The reason is clear. The rule of reading we have been discussing cannot be made fully intelligible without going into all sorts of grammatical and logical explanations about words and terms.

In fact, we have actually done very little explaining. To give an adequate account of these matters would take many chapters. We have merely touched upon the most essential points. We hope we have said enough to make the rule a useful guide in practice. The more you put it into practice, the more you will appreciate the intricacies of the problem. You will want to know something about the literal and metaphorical use of words. You will want to know about the distinction between abstract and concrete words, and between proper and common names. You will become interested in the whole business of definition: the difference between defining words and defining things; why some words are indefinable, and yet have definite meanings, and so forth. You will seek light on what is called “the emotive use of words,” that is, the use of words to arouse emotions, to move men to action or change their minds, as distinct from the communication of knowledge. And you may even become interested in the relation between ordinary “rational” speech and “bizarre” or “crazy” talk – the speech of the mentally disturbed, where almost every word carries weird and unexpected but nevertheless identifiable connotations.

You may never wish to go further. But even if you do not, you will find that your comprehension of any book will be enormously increased if you only go to the trouble of finding its important words, identifying their shifting meanings, and coming to terms. Seldom does such a small change in a habit have such a large effect.