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What is “Read Between the Lines”?

To read between the lines, sometimes varied as to read in between the lines, is a common expression about interpreting meaning beyond what someone says or does on the surface.

Cecilia Gigliotti
Cecilia Gigliotti

To read between the lines, sometimes varied as to read in between the lines, is a common expression about interpreting meaning beyond what someone says or does on the surface. And in fact, it’s an ideal phrase for people in the early English-learning stages—because it involves a metaphor of learning through reading.

Where Did It Come From?

This phrase dates back to the olden days of letter writing. As late as the nineteenth century, sending letters by post was the primary communication between people who lived any distance apart. Letters bore information about daily goings-on, social happenings, work, family drama, and so on.

Since letters took so long to reach their destination (often crossing oceans) and passed through so many hands on their way, correspondents could not always be certain of their privacy. Especially in times of war or political upheaval, letters ran the risk of being intercepted and used to implicate people in acts of treason or conspiracy. Thus, to ensure safety, writers would encode meanings literally between lines of text—so the message would be important to its intended reader and seem unimportant to everyone else. The expression, whose origin indicated an evasion tactic, soon entered the vernacular to signify any hidden message.

How Do I Use It in Everyday Speech?

You can apply this phrase to any situation that appears to be more than meets the eye. It’s all about observation.

Examples:

I was trying to show them how much I cared, but I guess they couldn’t read between the lines.
He might look happy for her, but if you read between the lines, he doesn’t really think she deserves the promotion.
Even though we hadn’t talked in years, I sent her a birthday greeting, hoping she’d read between the lines and get back in touch.

Some More Examples to Take with You:

Die Hard 2 (1990)
Wrong Cops (2013)
Two for the Money (2005)
EnglishIdioms & expressions

Cecilia Gigliotti

I have extensive experience writing in a variety of genres, from literary novels to music reviews to academic articles. I appreciate the power of words.


Milena Lazova

I'm an ESL teacher with over 7 years of experience in providing original content. I really like writing educational articles which may help others learn some aspects of English.

Valentina Dordevic

Hello! My name is Valentina. Book digesting is my specialty. I transform book ideas into easy-to-follow summaries, articles, study guides, reviews, essays, analyses, slides, or e-books.

Beth Taylor

Hello! My name is Beth. I'm from France. I'm a French and English native speaker and I really like writing.