'Read Between the Lines': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on November 29, 2023

Have you ever heard the expression 'read between the lines' and wondered what it means? If so, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll explore the meaning of this common idiom, its origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

If you're just here to find out what it means, here's the short version:

  • To read between the lines is to try to understand the hidden meaning within what someone is trying to say.

What Does 'Read Between the Lines' Mean?

The idiom 'read between the lines' means understanding or deducing a meaning not explicitly stated in the text or spoken words. So when somebody is saying something, if you read between the lines, you know they are not saying exactly what they mean but are implying it.

Imagine, for instance, that you're worried about your friend who has been through a difficult breakup, and texted you saying she is okay. You might say:

Sarah told me she was fine, but she's not acting like her usual self, so if I read between the lines I think she needs support.

To read between the lines you often need to pay attention to subtle details, nuances, or context, and go beyond just what the person is saying.

Note that the idiom contains a verb, meaning you can use it in different forms, too, including:

  • Past indefinite: 'read between the lines' (same spelling but different pronunciation)
  • Present participle: 'reading between the lines'
  • Third-person singular: 'reads between the lines'

Where Does 'Read Between the Lines' Come From?

Some sources say the idiom 'read between the lines' originated in cryptography, a technique used to secure communication and data in various contexts, including computer networks, the internet, and information systems.

It's been around for a lot longer than people might think, even though it was used in much simpler forms in the beginning. For example, Julius Caesar is famously associated with the Caesar Cipher. In this simple substitution cipher, each letter in the plaintext is shifted a certain number of places down the alphabet.

In some cryptography techniques, you write a secret message in invisible ink between the lines of actual text. So, you can see how we might believe this idiom comes from the practice of cryptography.

That said, it's always challenging to pinpoint the precise origins of idioms, and language often evolves in ways that make tracing their history challenging. While cryptography involves reading messages in a different sense—decoding hidden messages through various techniques—the idiom is more broadly associated with interpreting information beyond its literal or surface-level meaning.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it. As you'll see, I've included examples that use various tenses, such as the third-person singular, present participle, and past indefinite.

Sarah's resignation letter may seem polite on the surface, but if you read between the lines, you'll see her frustration with the company's management.

The politician's speech was carefully crafted, so we had to read between the lines to understand the true implications of his proposals.

The professor's feedback on my essay was brief, but by reading between the lines, I could tell she wasn't impressed.

When negotiating a contract, you must read between the lines to catch any hidden clauses or potential pitfalls.

The CEO's public statement seemed optimistic, but employees were quick to read between the lines and understand they needed to start looking for new jobs.

In a text message, he said everything was fine, but her intuition told her to read between the lines and check in on him.

The novel's plot is complex, and readers need to read between the lines to fully see the characters' motivations and the underlying themes.

During the job interview, the candidate's body language showed how nervous he was, so the interviewer read between the lines and asked about his concerns.

The press release seemed straightforward, but journalists were quick to read between the lines and investigate the missing pieces.

John reads between the lines during team meetings, understanding not just what is said but also the unspoken concerns of his colleagues.

Other Ways to Say 'Read Between the Lines'

There are plenty of other ways to say you understand something that wasn't said but was implied. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

Here are some of them:

  • Read into
  • Look beyond the surface
  • See the bigger picture
  • Dig deeper
  • Find the subtext
  • Look for hidden meanings
  • Decipher
  • Interpret

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says they 'read between the lines,' they mean they find the hidden meaning in what someone has said.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for other idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!  

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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