Chapter 9 – Determining an Authors Message (part 1 of 3)


The reader must usually come to terms with an author first, before he can find out what the author is proposing, what judgement he is declaring. That is why the fifth rule of analytical reading concerns words and terms, and the sixth, which we are about to discuss, concerns sentences and propositions.

There is a seventh rule that is closely related to the sixth. … [The author’s] propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. … we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.

The seventh rule, therefore, deals with arguments of all sorts. … an argument is always a set or series of statements of which some provide the grounds or reasons for what is to be concluded. A paragraph, therefore, or at least a collection of sentences, is required to express an argument.

There is a grammatical as well as a logical aspect to the order of these rules of interpretation. We go from terms to propositions to arguments, by going from words (and phrases) to sentences to collections of sentences (or paragraphs). We are building up from simpler to more complex units. … There is no other way of discovering the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments.

The movement at this stage of analytical reading – when interpretation is our goal – seems to be in the opposite direction from the movement in the first stage – when the goal was a structural outline. There we went from the book as a whole to its major parts, and then to their subordinate divisions. As you might suspect, the two movements meet somewhere. The major parts of a book and their principal divisions contain many propositions and usually several arguments. But if you keep on dividing the book into its parts, at last you have to say: “In this part, the following points are made.” Now each of these points is likely to be a proposition, and some of them taken together probably form an argument.

Thus, the two processes, outlining and interpretation, meet at the level of propositions and arguments. You work down to propositions and arguments by dividing the book into its parts. You work up to arguments by seeing how they are composed of propositions and ultimately of terms. When you have completed the two processes, you can really say that you know the contents of a book.


Not every sentence in a book expresses a proposition. For one thing, some sentences express questions. They state problems rather than answers. Propositions are the answer to questions. They are declarations of knowledge or opinion. That is why we call sentences that express them declarative, and distinguish sentences that as questions as interrogative. Other sentences express wishes or intentions. They may give us some knowledge of the author’s purpose, but they do not convey the knowledge he is trying to expound.

Moreover, not all the declarative sentences can be read as if each expressed one proposition. … Such sentences can be very difficult to interpret.

We have said enough to indicate what we mean by the difference between sentences and propositions. They are not related as one to one. Not only can a single sentence express several propositions, either through ambiguity or complexity, but one and the same proposition can also be expressed by two or more different sentences. If you grasp our terms through the words and phrases we use synonymously, you will know that we are saying the same thing when we say, “Teaching and being taught are correlative functions,” and “Initiating and receiving communication are related processes.”

We are going to stop explaining the grammatical and logical points involved and turn to the rules.



RULE 7. LOCATE OR CONSTRUCT THE BASIC ARGUMENTS OF THE BOOK BY FINDING THEM IN THE CONNECTION OF SENTENCES. You will see later why we did not say “paragraphs” in the formulation of this rule.

Incidentally, it is just as true of these new rules as it was of the rule about coming to terms that they apply primarily to expository works. The rules about propositions and arguments are quite different when you are reading a poetical work – a novel, play, or poem. We will discuss the changes that are required in applying them to such works later.