Learn English – Why are you “reading” a particular subject at university


I've always wondered why the verb "read" is used to basically mean "study" when describing somebody's university course. They might say:

I'm reading History at university.

And it might be said of them:

He's reading History at university.

Why "reading"? Traditionally, university has been about more than just reading; in the past perhaps even more so than now, a lot of it was about face-to-face tutoring. How did "reading" become synonymous here with "studying"? Also, why does it always seem to be used in the present tense? People don't tend to say "I read History at university 10 years ago"; once they've got the degree, they're more likely to say "I studied History at university 10 years ago".

This usage of the verb "read" may be peculiarly British; it is certainly widespread here in Britain; not sure about elsewhere.

Best Answer

It’s a British expression, now used quite generally of university study, that used to be especially common at Oxford and Cambridge. I suspect that it reflects the way in which education was traditionally organized at those universities: a series of set-piece lectures, not necessarily compulsory, and a great deal of independent reading that was regularly discussed with a tutor, either individually or in small seminars. However important the lectures were (or in some cases perhaps weren’t), the bulk of a serious student’s time and energy went into reading, digesting what was read, and writing based on that reading, especially in subjects like history, literature, and philosophy. In this setting reading history (say) would be a natural pars pro toto.