Critical Reading: a Case Study

Here’s how to read a text critically as an exercise in improving your English rather than for surface comprehension. Let’s take this article, the not-so-United Kingdom: Britain is sliding towards Scoxit , from the Economist as our sample text.

The first question is to figure out the purpose of the text. Besides being a news text, the author has taken a strong position that Scottish independence has become both more likely and less economically feasible as a consequence of Brexit.

Notice what is not in the article: should, in my opinion, to my mind, I think, therefore or I feel. Instead, would is used seven times; could and may are used three times apiece. This quote captures the essence of the style:

For a country of 5m people that depends on two sputtering industries, to go it alone would be a gamble. Yet Scots may conclude that remaining in the Brexit-bound union would be riskier still. They would be wrong. For although Mrs May’s willingness to leave the single market and customs union is likely to be bad for Britain, it also makes independence more complicated.

A typical non-native speaker of a Germanic language would tend to produce a text along the lines of:

In my opinion, Scotland shouldn’t leave the United Kingdom, because its economy will suffer.

While there aren’t an ‘mistakes’ in that sentence, it doesn’t carry the richness of natural English and sounds abrupt and halting. The harshness of a strongly worded opinion is softened when such an opinion is phrased as a conditional.

The rhythm of this quote is also used to add emphasis. The sharp contrast of the four-word staccato sentence sandwiched between a twenty-word and thirty-word sentence naturally draws attention to and emphasizes the author’s opinion that it would be a mistake for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.

I’m constantly asked if a text has mistakes, which is the wrong question. The right question would be, would a native English speaker writing in this context have written the text this way?

Next: Meaning Trumps Grammar

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