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Reading and note taking – preparation for study
Reading and note taking – preparation for study

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3 Strange words, long sentences and lost meanings

In reading for a purpose it is not unusual to get stuck on unfamiliar words and concepts or struggle with complex ideas and sentences. This section suggests tactics for coping with unfamiliar words (and inadequate dictionaries), unpacking complex sentences and retrieving lost meanings. In order to do this we will draw on an extract taken from a book, Crime and Society in Britain, by Hazel Croall (1998) which is a social science text. It thus contains more ‘conceptual’ or ‘technical’ terminology than was evident in The Scotsman article.

Activity 5(a)

Read the extract reproduced below and highlight any unfamiliar words or difficult sentences that you come across. After you have done that, click the "Now read the discussion" link beneath the article to read our feedback and notes.

Click below to open the extract by Hazel Croall, Crime and society in Britain.

crime and society in Britain [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


We thought that the word ‘indictable’ may present a problem and we wondered what the difference between an ‘indictable’ and a ‘summary’ offence was. Later in the extract the concept of ‘natural selection’ is introduced, a rather specialist term which is not necessarily part of our everyday language. Similarly, towards the end of the piece, terms such as ‘the anomie paradigm’ and ‘subcultural theory’ are used – both likely to be unfamiliar to most people.

Thinking about how you might deal with these difficult words and concepts there are a number of strategies you might try:

  • Dictionaries can be helpful where the word is simply unfamiliar to you but is in everyday use. However, if the word represents a particular social scientific concept or idea, general dictionaries are less useful. For example, if you did wonder what the word ‘indictable’ meant, looking it up in The Concise Oxford Dictionary (7th edition) would have yielded the following: ‘rendering one liable’ – not particularly helpful.

  • A social science dictionary can be useful but may not necessarily provide the answer you are looking for. Meanings are contested in the social sciences – different words mean different things to different people, including authors of social scientific dictionaries! So the meaning ascribed to a word in even a specialist dictionary might not be the same meaning that the author of the textbook you are reading had in mind.

So what other methods might you use?

  • An alternative approach is to look for clues in the part of the text where the word appears. For example, in the paragraph where the term ‘natural selection’ appears there are also references made to the concept of evolution and the process whereby characteristics are ‘bred out’ of certain individuals, both of which imply something to do with genetics. So, from looking at the context in which the word appears, you are already building up enough of a general picture to enable you to move on.

  • Had there been no immediate clues you might usefully have looked ahead – marked the problematic term or concept and read on to see if it was revisited with more explanation later. For example, in the second paragraph on page 16 ‘summary offences’ are referred to as ‘generally assumed to be less serious’. In this way a working understanding of ‘indictable’ and ‘summary’ offences can be developed whereby indictable offences are constructed as more serious than summary offences. It might not be very sophisticated or complex but again it enables you to move forward. Similarly, subcultural theory may not be something with which you are familiar, but if you read the whole of the relevant paragraph you are given some useful hints about what it is concerned with – such as ‘lad’ culture and ‘fan’ culture. These are examples of subcultures and thus help you to pinpoint the general focus of such a theory which may be enough to be going on with. Retracing the argument to see if it points in a particular direction is also a potentially useful method to draw upon.

  • If none of the above strategies prove helpful, you might simply ask yourself to what extent it matters. For example, is it crucial to the article as a whole or for the purpose you have in mind to understand what the ‘anomie paradigm’ is? If not, skip it. If it is, there are other sources, in the library for example, that you might draw upon, not least the book from where the extract was taken.

Turning our attention to difficult sentences, we felt that ‘Lombroso and Ferrero, to whom criminal men were biologically less evolved, saw women as being less evolved than men and closer to primitive types and argued that natural selection had bred out their criminal tendencies’ (third paragraph on page 16 of the reading) was rather complex and a possible stumbling block.

One approach to dealing with sentences such as this, which try to say a lot in a small number of words, is to divide it up and create several simpler sentences or statements. Trying this technique we came up with the following:

Lombroso and Ferrero believed that:

  • Criminal men were biologically less evolved than non-criminal men

  • Women were less evolved than men

  • Women were thus closer to primitive types

  • Women's criminal tendencies had been bred out of them through natural selection

Dividing complex sentences up into less complex ones enables you to get a clearer sense of the ideas being presented and separate out different ideas so that you can use them more easily. Of course, sometimes this may not help. Another potentially useful technique involves focusing on those sentences which come immediately before or after the complex one – they may give you additional clues. The key is to take it slowly and be active about solving the problem, as opposed to letting such difficulties immobilize or panic you.

Activity 5(b)

Have a go at using these methods to tackle other strange and unfamiliar words and complex sentences that you noted in the extract above.

You may have a range of different responses so we haven't provided a specific comment which might be seen as a ‘right answer’.

The first half of this course has focused on reading. However, throughout we have made reference to jotting down ideas and questions, marking difficult words and concepts. In doing so we have begun to illustrate how active reading in particular is inherently linked to and bound up with writing. In the second half of the course we are going to explore in more detail the relationship between the skills of purposeful reading and those of note taking.