Why is college reading so difficult?
The Lexicon—problems we all have with the words
- Academic communication aims at precision. There's very little space for "ya know what I mean?" to clean up misunderstandings or sloppy thinking.
- College professors talk and write like college professors. They aim at precision and sometimes "extant" is just a better choice that "still in existence" or "surviving."
- There really are no synonyms—at least not in the sense of "precisely identical"—so educated writers/speakers often choose a word that's nearly the same meaning as something you know, but has a slightly different "edge" to it. This is part of the passion for accuracy.
- Many words have more than one meaning, and academic writers often use those secondary meanings. I once asked my students to respond to this quotation from Roger Scruton:
“We should not value education as a means to prosperity, but prosperity as a means to education. Only then will our priorities be right. For education, unlike prosperity, is an end in itself.”
Many of my students were unaware of the secondary definitions for means and end, so they "translated" this to say, "you will eventually get out of school, but you will always have money"—which is light-years away from the point Scruton was making. My students concluded that Scruton was an idiot and that I had wasted their time with gibberish.
By the way, in case you needed it, here's a real translation of the Scruton quote:
“We should not value learning because it will get us money. We should value money because it can get us education. Education is valuable in itself, but money is only valuable because you can use it to buy other things. If your only aim is to get money, you are messed up.”
- Dictionary. Don't just go for the first meaning either. If the first meaning doesn't seem to make sense, read through the others to see whether the writer is using the word in a third or fourth sense.
- Usage. See how the author is using it. Maybe you can figure out from the context what the word might mean.
- Humility. Don't assume that your dozen years of public education have taught you absolutely everything there is to know. (If you believe it did, why did you come to college?) Simply assume that you need to look up a few words. We all do. Don't assume either that the author is trying to make you look stupid, is trying to show off, or is an idiot. These reading assignments are not usually ego contests; they are attempts to communicate.
Each little world of speakers/writers ("discourse community") develops its own way of saying things, and sometimes simple vocabulary words don't help you much. Here are three examples:
- General public: a spiritual being who is a servant of God.
- Business world: a successful entrepreneur who is willing to invest gains in new ventures.
- General public: a large heavy animal that walks on the soles of its feet.
- Business world: a person who forecasts that the prices of stocks will fall.
- General public: an uncastrated male bovine animal.
- Business world: a person who buys shares hoping to sell them at a higher price later.
- Dictionary. Again, don't just go for the first meaning. In most cases, jargon meanings will be buried several entries down.
- Usage. See how the author is using it. The "angel" entry in the dictionary may not include the business usage.
- Intellectual curiosity. If you use Google and simply type in "Angel," you get the spiritual being links. If you search for "Angel business" (because you were reading a business text and the word didn't seem to mean a spiritual being), you get directed to the Wikipedia article on Angel Investor.
The real definition of "idiom" is "the way we do it." All languages have them, and they are normally invisible to the people who use them. Here's an example from a highway sign advertising an insurance company:
I am here so I can be there for you.
Literally, that is total nonsense, but it makes sense if you know that "be there for you" is an informal American idiom that means "support you in your time of need." It has nothing to do with location, and people who use the idiom don't see the insanity of that sign.
- You cannot figure out the meaning of an idiom by adding up the meanings of the individual words. The phrase carries the meaning. ("be there for you" = "support you in your time of need")
- Idioms are closely related to spoken language, so some of them are very ancient ("without further ado") and others very recent ("be there for you").
- "Without further ado" is at least 400 years old, and uses a word (ado) that has vanished from the language. (Many writers who don't know what they are doing spell it as adieu.) It's turned to stone. We deal with it as a chunk, not even thinking about the meaning of the individual words.
- Some idioms don't travel well. Be there for you is likely to fall into that category. You won't understand it if you aren't an informal American. Chances are the idiom will vanish quite soon.
- Treat English as phrases, not individual words. If the literal meaning of something makes no sense, assume that there's a larger meaning, possibly being carried by a traditional phrase.
- Be humble. Ask. Each group of speakers (discourse community) has their own idioms, so try to find someone who can explain things to you.
- Try the Internet. Type phrases (not single words) into Google. Try this Dictionary of English Idioms & Idiomatic Expressions.
4. Phrasal verbs
English often uses two-word combinations as a single verb. Some of these two-word combinations are functional (and looking up the words individually will not help you). Other two-word combinations make a new meaning that you cannot get by simply adding the two words together.
Here are some examples of functional combinations:
- Infinitives: "I want to eat lunch." In this case to has no meaning of its own. It's part of a two-word verbal form. Here is a tutorial on infinitives and gerunds (-ing verbs)
- Modals: "I would like soup." Modals are complex and difficult. Once again, the two-word verb means something quite different from "I like soup." The first sample means "I am politely asking for soup." The second means "Soup is something that generally pleases me." Here is a tutorial on modals.
- Perfect verb tense: "I have eaten my soup." In this case, have is not related to the meaning "possess or hold." It's a verb tense indicator. The two-word combination means "The soup-eating took place and was finished just before I said/wrote this sentence." It's not just fancy academic jargon, nor is it a space filler; it is a verb construction that says something got finished. Here is a tutorial on present perfect verbs Here is a tutorial on past perfect verbs. Here is a tutorial on future perfect verbs.
Meaningful combinations: Notice that
- You cannot always get to the meaning by simply adding the definitions of the two words.
- "put up with" ≠ "move to a higher location and place it near something"
- "run into" ≠ "move inside very quickly on foot"
- "work out" ≠ "labor outdoors"
- These are also idioms—we just do it this way, and there's no easy way to work it out logically. Many good (larger) dictionaries will list phrasal verbs under the main entry. (Go to "work" and read down through the entries to find "work out.")
- Though they are phrasal verbs, they remain two distinct words. They are not joined or hyphenated:
- "work out" is a phrasal verb that means "engage in vigorous physical exercise or training, typically at a gym."
- "workout" is a noun that means "a session of vigorous physical exercise or training."
- "work-out" is a noun, but we don't use the hyphen any more. Use workout instead for the name of the exercise session.
- Often we split a phrasal verb with another word: "George asked Martha out." (Invited her to a social evening) Splitting that phrasal verb can change the meaning:
- I will work out today = I will engage in exercise at a gym
- I will work the bugs out of this program = I will carefully inspect the program for problems
Your ultimate best strategy
The only way to get good at college reading is to do it. Immerse yourself in it. Ask questions. Take a vivid interest in what you read. Get outside your field and read widely.
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 1/1/18 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.