‘Read Between The Lines’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 17, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'read between the lines,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

‘Read between the lines’ refers to the act of perceiving the meaning of a communication that isn’t explicitly stated. 

What Does 'Read Between the Lines' Mean?

‘Read between the lines’ is an idiom that means to be able to detect or perceive a hidden meaning that isn’t explicitly spelled out. Basically, it means being able to discern a meaning that isn’t made obvious.

Where Does 'Read Between the Lines' Come From?

There are a few different fascinating theories about the origin of this idiom.

One is that the phrase comes from the cryptographic practice where hidden messages would be written between the lines of a letter. Invisible ink would be used to communicate the actual message, while a decoy message would be written in visible ink.

Another common theory is that the phrase comes from the practice of writing smaller words between the lines of the main text in medieval manuscripts. These are known as interlinear glosses. These commentaries would provide detailed explanations, close readings, and citations for related materials. Beyond that, they were tremendously useful for the translation of these writings into the vernacular language.

The phrase is said to have first appeared in the mid-19th century and was shortly thereafter used to describe deciphering any unclear message, even unwritten communications.

An early example of the phrase in print shows up in a New York Times article from August 1862:

“Earl Russell's dispatch does not recite the terms of the note to which it is a reply, the letter assumes a somewhat enigmatical character, and the only resource we have is, as best we may, to "read between the lines" of this puzzling, but important, communication of the British Foreign Secretary.”

Examples of the Idiom in Text

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'read between the lines' seems to enter common usage during the second half of the 19th century.

In Volume 39 of London Society from 1881, we find an early use of the phrase in print:

‘“It is remarkable for how many years Lever’s novels were ignored by the London press. There was one London newspaper, however, which confessed that, ‘amidst all the reckless extravagance, uproarious humour, and brilliant slap-dash, they read between the lines of Lorrequer a power of description, an insight into character, a mine of thought, which one might look for in vain in works of far higher pretension.”

Another example shows up in an Official Report from the Parliamentary Debates in 1882:

”He was happy to hear that protest from the noble Marquess, because he had observed, during the whole of the speeches on the Ministerial side directed against his hon. Friend (Mr. Parnell) and the other imprisoned Land Leaguers, their strong point was that they were able to read between the lines of the Land Leaguers’ speeches, and to see there what was not contained anywhere in the text of the speeches.”

For a third example, let’s look at The Langham Hall Pulpit: Volume 2 from 1879:

“To see either of these things, we must “read between the lines” and “read back New Testament ideas into the Old.” But this Mr. Maitland himself forbids us to do, and we readily obey him.”

Examples of 'Read Between the Lines' In Sentences

How would 'read between the lines' be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “You can’t simply just take what they’re saying at face value. If you do, you’re being naive. You need to learn to read between the lines.
  • “She always speaks so cryptically. I swear she never actually says what she means. You always have to read between the lines with her, and I’m sick of it.”
  • Mrs. Abbot is obviously an expert at reading between the lines. She seems to know which way the wind is blowing before anyone else.”
  • My coworker is always accusing me of not being blunt enough– he says he feels like he always has to read between the lines to figure out what I really mean.”
  • “The movie was good, but there wasn’t much depth to it. There was hardly any need to try and read between the lines if you know what I mean.”
  • “I’m trying to read between the lines and understand what you’re actually saying. Are you implying that you think Ms. Higgens is stealing from the store?”
  • “The CEO said that we’re going to be entering tough times. I’m not sure whether you were able to read between the lines, so I just want you to know that means layoffs are coming.”
  • “I really didn’t enjoy reading that book at all. The story requires that you’re constantly reading between the lines– it was way too mentally exhausting.”

Other Ways to Say This Idiom

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'read between the lines'?

Here are some options:

  • Connect the dots
  • Look beneath the surface
  • Catch the drift
  • Read the signs
  • See through the veil

Quotes Using the Phrase

This common idiom can be found in a number of memorable phrases by famous thinkers, writers, creatives, and public figures.

Here are some examples:

“To read between the lines was easier than to follow the text.”

- Henry James

“The art of reading between the lines is as old as manipulated information.”

- Serge Schmemann

Read between the lines.Then meet me in the silence if you can.”

- Mary Sarton

Read between the lines, folks, 'cause I'm here to tell you you're not getting the straight story. Ever. You're getting variations of the truth, if you're lucky.”

- Rob Lowe

“Reading is important - read between the lines. Don't swallow everything.”

- Gwendolyn Brooks

Final Thoughts About 'Read Between the Lines'

‘Read between the lines’ is a common English idiom that means to perceive a hidden message that isn’t actually stated. The phrase might come from the glosses of medieval manuscripts, or it might refer to the cryptographic practice of writing between the lines of a decoy text with invisible ink.

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

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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