Reading: Understanding Difficult Language

Reading Skills for Academic Study

Understanding texts

Dealing with difficult words and sentences

Academic texts are often difficult: they have difficult ideas expressed in difficult language. From a language point of view, there are several features that make the text difficult. They include difficult words, difficult combinations of nouns and difficult sentences.

Difficult words.

It is unlikely that you will know every word in a text and even if you think you have seen every word before, it is unlikely that you will have seen a particular word in its present context. It is therefore necessary to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words in context and, perhaps, familiar words in new contexts. This is necessary even if you have a dictionary as your dictionary does not know the exact context in which the word is being used.

If you think your vocabulary level is too low for academic work there are three solutions: read, read and read.

A. Is it necessary to know the exact meaning of a particular word? Often a rough meaning is enough (does the word have a positive or negative meaning?). Remember that the purpose of reading an academic text is to get information and it is possible to understand the text without knowing the meaning of every word. It is not necessary to be able to explain, or translate, the meaning of a word.

B. Look for definitions. The author may know a particular word may be new so explains. The author may also be using the word in a new, or unusual way so will need to explain how it is being used. This will be done by using a definition, an explanation, an example or by using a synonym (a word with the same meaning). The phrases “called“, “known as“, “is the name applied to“, “in other words“, “that is“, “is said to be” are often used.


1. The words “polybrachygyny” and “leks” are explained

Some male birds spend all their time mating and do not provide the female with any benefits other than indications of their vigour. This condition, called polybrachygyny, means that males that show the most effective displays are most persuasive in attracting females. These displays are given at localised courting places called leks.

2. The phrases “free-running experiments” and “free-running rhythms” are explained.

Because there are no constraints placed upon the timing of the volunteer’s activities in such a time-free environment, these are called free-running experiments and the rhythms measured during them are known as free-running rhythms.

3. Synonym in apposition or with “or

A majority of experts agree that neandertaloids were the first members of our species, Homo sapiens.

Most metals are malleable; they can be hammered into flat sheets; nonmetals lack this quality. Some metals are also ductile; they can be drawn out into thin wires; nonmetals are not usually ductile.

Glandular fever, or infectious mononucleosis, is a serious disease.

Each transformed organism is fitted to or adapted to its habitat.

4. Example

We humans are Animalia: mobile, multicelled organisms that derive energy from ingestion (“eating”).

Methadone is an example of a synthetic narcotic drug.

5. Description

The Anthropoidea, on the other hand, are sometimes called the “higher primates.” They have relatively larger and rounder skull cases, flatter faces, and mobile lips detached from the gums.

6. Explanation using “that is

Each tribal group, identified by the language it speaks, is an exogamous unit; that is, people must marry outside the group and therefore always marry someone who speaks another language.

7. Explanation using “-”

Today, the sense of anomie – alienation, disconnectedness – at Apple is major.

8. Explanation using “()”

This resource comprises linkers which connect sentences to each other, but excludes paratactic and hypotactic (coordinating and subordinating) linkers within sentences.

C. Work out the meaning of the word or phrase.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

(From Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”)

There are two main approaches to doing this. It may not tell you the exact meaning of the word, but it may help you to narrow down the possibilities so the text makes sense:

1. You can analyse the word itself. You can look inside the word. You can use your knowledge of similar words and look at how the word is constructed. Using this information you can find information about (a) the meaning of the word as well as (b) grammatical information.

a. Affixes can help you work out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. For example, if you do not know the meaning of the word “incomprehensible“, you can work it out if you are familiar with “comprehend” meaning understand, “in” meaning not, and “ible” meaning can. Therefore “an incomprehensible sentence” refers to a sentence that you cannot understand.

In the Jabberwocky text above, we know “outgrabe” is a verb because “out-” is a common verb prefix (“outwit“, “outdo“)

See Vocabulary building: Affixes and roots for more examples

b. It is not usually difficult to work out the grammatical category: noun, verb, adjective, adverb etc. If the word ends in “-ing” or “-ed” it could be a verb; if the word ends in “-ly“, it may be an adverb; if the word ends in “-tion“, it is possibly a noun. If the word ends in “-ise“, it is probably a verb. If you see a sentence like “The spid claned lanly“, you can work out that “claned” is the past tense of the verb “clane“, and “lanly” is an adverb.

In the Jabberwocky text above, we know “borogroves“, “raths” and “toves” are nouns because “-s” is a common noun suffix, and “slithy” is an adjective because “-y” is a common adjective suffix.

2. You can use the context. You can make use of the other words, phrases, sentences and information around the problematic word. Using this information you can find information about the meaning of the word as well as grammatical information. (a) Grammatical information can be obtained from the place of the word in the sentence. (b) Information about the meaning of the word can come from the meanings of the other words in the context.

a. By using your knowledge of typical English clause and phrase structure, you can often work out the grammatical function of a particular word. Typical clause structures are SPO, SPA, SPOC.

In the sentence, “The spid claned lanly“, as articles usually precede nouns, you can also assume that “spid” is a noun.

In the Jabberwocky text above, we know “slithy” is an adjective because it comes between “the” and “toves“.

b. Information about the meaning of the word can come from the meanings of the other words in the context. Using your knowledge of the world and your subject can help. You can, for example, make use of your knowledge of the relationship between object and purpose, “He took the … and drank“, “She sat on the …” or cause and effect, “The heavy … caused the river to rise“. Words and phrases connected with “and“, “moreover” or “in addition” will have related meanings and clauses connected with “while” or “although” will have opposite meanings.

You will need to use context even with simple words like “like“, “too“, “light”, “ fly“, as they have different meanings and grammatical forms. You will need to use the context to determine which is being used in a particular situation.


Try these exercises: Exercise 1, Exercise 2, Exercise 3, Exercise 4, Exercise 5, Exercise 6.

Noun combinations

Combinations of nouns are common in academic texts. A “steel box” is a box made of steel and a “computer programmer” is someone who programmes computers. The problem is to understand the relationship between the nouns. A “hand towel” is a towel for drying your hands but a “bath towel” is not a towel for drying the bath. A “paper bag” is a bag made out of paper, but a “hand bag” is not a bag made out of hands and a “shopping bag” is not a bag made out of shopping. Williams (1984, p. 149) distinguishes 10 different functions:

function example expansion
B of A brewery warehouse the warehouse of (owned by) the brewery
means heat affected zone the zone affected by heat
purpose safety harness a harness for purposes of improved safety
location roof trusses trusses in the roof
materials used steel boxes boxes made of steel
cause and effect frost damage damage caused by frost
extent tension areas areas over which there is tension
characteristic striation markings markings characterized by striations
shape or form web plates plates in the shape of webs
representation force and motion data data that represents force and motion

In order to understand these combinations, it is first necessary to identify the headword and work backwards.

Difficult sentences

When a sentence cannot be understood even though all the vocabulary is known, it is often because it is long and syntactically complex. There are a number of causes of difficulty:

  1. complex nominal groups
  2. nominalisation
  3. co-ordination
  4. subordination

A. A nominal group is a head noun modified by adjectives, nouns, or other words which may come before or after it. It is often the words that come after the head noun that cause most difficulty.

1. In this example “unwillingness” is the head noun.

One reason for this may have lain in the unwillingness of biologists to accept the highly abstract nature of his theory.

2. In this example “recommendations” is the head noun.

This side of the issue was entrusted to Lord Brabazon of Tara, whose committee was invited to make recommendations on the types of aircraft that Britain should produce for the postwar period.

In such a sentence, it is useful to try to identify the head noun.

B. Nominalisation is common in academic texts. This is the formation of a noun from a verb. In the examples above, “unwillingness” is a noun from the verb “willing”, and “recommendations” is a noun from the verb “recommend”. As if often the case with complex sentences, it is useful to change the noun back to a verb and work out which nouns, functioning as subject and object, are associated with it. In example 1 above, the subject of unwilling is “biologists”.

C. Co-ordination is joining sentences together with words like “and” or “but”. It is sometimes difficult to decide exactly what is joined together.

1. In this sentence “or” joins “twenty-five sleepers” with “forty to forty-five day passengers“.

In October 1944, Lord Knollys, the BOAC chairman, told a meeting held in the Ministry of Aircraft production that the Brabazon Type 3 would be the airline’s “bread and butter” aircraft for Empire routes, carrying twenty-five sleepers or forty to forty-five day passengers.

2. Another example with “or“.

It is addressed primarily to people who grew up in the embrace of the liberal tradition or who at least have felt its attraction.

3. Similarly with “and“.

In addition, Lautrec’s dramatically reductive and stylized treatment of this painting suggests a connection to the contemporary work of the Cloisonnists and to Gauguin’s Synthetism.

4. And again.

The main grist to the mill of policing was working-class youth, but the perennial conflict between youth and the police is one with ever-changing persona and is not the basis of political conflict.

D. Subordinate noun-clauses are often difficult to understand as they make it difficult for the reader to understand which nouns function as subject or object of the verb. It is useful in such a situation to identify the basic structure of the sentence by identifying the main verb and then asking various questions like “Who does what?”

1. In this example the main verb is “ought to blame“. Ask who ought to blame whom.

Those commentators who blame Labour for not pursuing an alternative set of more socially just proposals in the conditions of August 1931 ought to blame the electorate for not giving Labour sufficient support to form a majority government in 1929.

In this case the “commentators” ought to blame the “electorate“. “Which commentators” and “Why” are useful follow up questions.

2. In this example, the main verb is “had divided“. Ask who had divided what.

The minority in the Labour Cabinet who opposed the cut in the standard rate of benefit had divided the Labour government, not on the question of whether the budget should be balanced, but on the subordinate question of how the budget should be balanced.

It is also useful to try to make simple sentences using all the verbs and other information in the text.

3. In the following text,

Professor Bernard Wasserstein of Brandeis University is shortly to publish a new biography of Herbert Samuel, who was, in effect, leader of the Liberal party for the crucial months of 1931, during Lloyd George’s illness, and a central figure in the crisis.

  • Professor Wassertein is shortly to publish a new biography.
  • Professor Wassertein works at Brandeis University.
  • Herbert Samuel was leader of the Liberal party in 1931.
  • Lloyd George was ill.
  • Herbert Samuel was leader of the Liberal party during the illness.
  • Herbert Samuel was a central figure in the crisis.
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