Chapter 9 – Determining an Authors Message (part 2 of 3)


How does one locate the most important sentences in a book? How, then, does one interpret these sentences to discover the one or more propositions they contain?

From the author’s point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which his whole argument rests. … He may indult in all sorts of supporting and surrounding discussion. But the heart of his communication lies in the major affirmations and denials he is making, and the reasons he gives for so doing.

Some authors help you do this. They underline the sentences for you. They either tell you that this is an important point when they make it, or they use one or another typographical device to make their leading sentences stand out.

Apart from books whose style or format calls attention to what most needs interpretation by the reader, the spotting of the important sentences is a job the reader must perform for himself. … If he is sensitive to the difference between passages he can understand readily and those he cannot, he will probably be able to locate the sentences that carry the main burden of meaning. Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.

Another clue to the important sentences is found in the words that compose them. If you have already marked the important words, they should lead you to the sentences that deserve further attention. Thus the first step in interpretive reading prepares fo the second. But the reverse may also be the case. It maybe that you will mark certain words only after you have become puzzled by the meaning of a sentence. The fact that we have stated these rules in fixed order does not mean that you have to follow them in that order. Terms constitute propositions. Propositions contain terms. If you know the terms the words express, you have caught the proposition in the sentence. If you understand the proposition conveyed by a sentence, you have arrived the terms also.

This suggests one further clue to the location of the principal propositions. They must belong to the main argument of the book. They must be either premises or conclusions. Hence, if you can detect those sentences that seem to form a sequence, a sequence in which there is a beginning and an end, you probably have put your finger on the sentences that are important.

Many persons believe that they know how to read because they read at different speeds. But they pause and go slow over the wrong sentences. They pause over the sentences that interest them rather than the ones that puzzle them. Indeed, this is one of the greatest obstacles to reading a book that is not completely contemporary. Any old book contains facts that are somewhat surprising because they are different from what we know. But when you are reading for understanding it is not that kind of novelty that you are seeking. Your interest in the author himself, or in his language, or in the world in which he wrote, is one thing; your concern to understand his ideas is quite another. It is tis concern that the rules we are discussing here can help you to satisfy, not your curiosity about other matters.


Let us suppose that you have located the leading sentences. Another step is required by Rule 6. You must discover the proposition or propositions that each of these sentences contains. This is just another way of saying that you must know what the sentence means. You discover terms by discovering what a word means in a given usage. You discover propositions similarly by interpreting all the words that make up the sentence, and especially its principal words.

There are only two differences between finding the terms that words express and the propositions that sentences express. One is that you employ a larger context in the latter case. You bring all the surrounding sentences to bear on the sentence in question, just as you used the surrounding words to interpret a particular word. In both cases, you proceed from what you do understand to the gradual elucidation of what is at first relatively unintelligible.

The other difference lies in the fact that complicated sentences usually express more than one proposition. You have not completed your interpretation of an important sentence until you have separated out of it all the different, though perhaps related, propositions. Skill in doing this comes with practice. Take some of the complicated sentences in this book and try to state in your own words each of the things that is being asserted. Number them and relate them.

“State in your own words!” That suggest the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition or propositions in the sentence. If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means. Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words. The idea can, of course, be approximated in varying degrees. But if you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.

These remarks have a bearing on syntopical reading – the reading of several books about the same subject matter. Different authors frequently say the same thing in different words, or different things using almost the same words. The reader who cannot see through the language to the terms and propositions will never be able to compare such related works.

There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read. Can you point to some experience you have had that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant? … If you cannot do anything at all to exemplify or illustrate the proposition, either imaginatively or by reference to actual experiences, you should suspect that you do not know what is being said.