Interpreting Difficult Sentences

With so many different kinds of writing, often in long, difficult sentences with unfamiliar words, many academic texts can be daunting for any reader, no matter how familiar English is to them. In reading critically for academic purposes, the key is to be able to interpret what an author is arguing about one idea in relation to others, e.g. are they supporting or rejecting the claims of other authors?, etc. Especially in some fields, the sentences used can become quite long, with many clauses, and it can be difficult to parse what meaning is intended in the sentence as a whole. When struggling, the following tips may help:

  1. Where and what is the verb? English grammar is looser than that of other languages, but the most effective word in a sentence is almost always the verb, and usually there are not more than a few verbs in a sentence–there can be more, but in most academic writing, this is frowned upon. Note this too as an author: try to make your sentences clear and straightforward, rather than unnecessarily long and complex, as it will make them more readable.
  2. Use those verbs as anchors to understand the logic of a sentence by determining what the verbs relate to each other. For example, X is Y, X is not Y, X confirms Y, etc., where having determined the verb, you then try to determine what X and Y might refer to for the sentence in question.
  3. Use the other sentences before and after, as well as the section, specialized vocabulary, etc., to try to interpret any additional meaning the text may have. This is something that you will be more able to do as your knowledge of your field increases.

If a complex sentence seems important, Shore (2016) advocated rephrasing it, either in pieces manageable for you and your goals as a writer, or simply writing the bit which is important to you in your notes. This is a form of paraphrasing, and an example of an excellent time to paraphrase a complex but important idea for your own writing.

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