Study, Learn, and Read

By Maeve Maddox

Some ESL speakers have trouble with these verbs.

To study is to apply the mind to the acquisition of knowledge. Books are the first avenue that comes to mind, but as the object of study is the acquisition of knowledge, other means include observation and experiment. Play is a form of study for children.

Although the word learn is closely associated with study, the following sentences have completely different meanings:

I am studying German.
I am learning German.

Many a student studies a subject in school without learning it.

To read has several meanings. The most common is “to scan written or printed words and get meaning from them.”

One noteworthy usage difference between British and American English is the use of read in reference to postsecondary education. In the U.S., students go to the university “to study history” or some other subject; in England, they go to university “to read history.”

The idiom “to read up on” means “to study.” For example, “Before you travel to India, you may want to read up a little on the culture.”

Idioms with read:
to read between the lines: to draw conclusions not apparent from surface appearances. “She tells them that she cares for them, but when she turned down their last three dinner invitations, I could read between the lines.”

read my lips! Ordinarily, this expression is used to emphasize a speaker’s sincerity and resolve: “Listen carefully!” “Pay close attention!” “Take my word for it!” In 1988, the phrase became closely associated with G. H. W. Bush, who said, “Read my lips: No new Taxes!” when accepting the presidential nomination. Because Bush did raise taxes during his presidency, political writers often use the phrase ironically.

to read someone like a book: to understand a person’s character and thoughts by studying outward signs.

to read a person’s mind: to guess what a person is thinking or intending to do.

to read the Riot Act: The phrase originated in reference to an 18th century Act passed by the British Parliament following several serious riots. The Act authorized local officials to disperse any gathering of more than 12 people who were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together.” An official would confront the group and read the part of the act that spelled out the consequences for refusing to obey. Nowadays the expression is used by adults in reference to noisy children: “Sounds like they’re getting pretty wild in there; you’d better go read them the Riot Act.”

Idioms with learn:
to learn by heart: to memorize

learn by rote: to learn by means of repetition, the way one learns the alphabet, the multiplication tables, and scientific phyla.

A learning curve is psychological jargon that has found a place in the general vocabulary. It means “the rate of a person’s progress in learning a new skill.” The expression derives from is a curve on a graph illustrating the rate of learning by a lab subject.

Modern usage distinguishes between learn and teach, but in Shakespeare’s time, learn was used in the sense of “teach”:

The red plague rid you
for learning me your language! –Caliban, The Tempest I:ii (1611)

This use survives in some dialects, but not in standard usage.

Fewer idioms with study come to mind:
study a face: to look closely at a face, as if to memorize its features.

study the options: to consider possible solutions to a problem or course of action.

be in a brown study: “A state of mental abstraction or musing; gloomy meditation. The word brown originally described a color so dark as to be almost black.

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2 Responses to “Study, Learn, and Read”

  • Matt Gaffney

    I don’t agree that “read” and “study” are equivalent in the context of describing one’s university pursuit. Of course, one reads books and studies a given subject, but, in the context of someone’s having read English at Oxbridge or Camford, the U.S. equivalent phrase “having majored in English” is a much more accurate equivalent. I think that’s the principal thrust of “read” in that context.

  • Baska

    One pernicious word or usage you could have included is “research”. In ancient times (when I was young) it meant deep and careful study, generally with the aim of discovering something previously unknown. Pocket Oxford Dictionary: “Endevour to discover facts by scientific study, course of critical invesigation”. Now it means “looked it up on google”.

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