I’m not a native speaker. I was told that if I’m currently studying something at university I should say:

I’m majoring in [subject].

But how can I say this in the present tense but using the British read term in the sense of study? I know that if I have already finished studying something, then I should say this in the past tense:

I read [subject] at X University.

But if I'm currently studying it, should I say it this way?

I’m reading [subject] at X University.

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    Perhaps similar linguistically & relevant to the British usage, prospective Virginia lawyers can "read [the] law [under an attorney’s supervision]" as an alternative to (but not as a synonym for) attending law school, which attendance is otherwise required to take/sit for the Bar Exam (“readers” still need to take & pass the bar to practice) & at least here in VA it would be proper AmEng to say “I’m reading law instead of going to law school.” (See here also](academia.stackexchange.com/questions/27994/…)
    – Papa Poule
    Sep 10 '16 at 19:20

As a British university graduate, I would have said "I am reading physics" if I had wanted to use that construction. In reality though, it sounds a bit pretentious except in formal contexts, day to day I was studying physics.

  • I am reading for Physics. I am reading for a degree in Physics. I read for Physics. Rather than, I am reading Physics. Sep 11 '16 at 9:44
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    I wouldn't include the word for in those sentences, and I've never heard a British native speaker do so. Sep 11 '16 at 10:04
  • I have never encountered this phrase before and I've also graduated from a British university, and also being native British.
    – DeadMG
    Sep 11 '16 at 10:14
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    I think the bar is a special case, it's not a subject as such, I'm not familiar with law terminology but reading for the bar doesn't sound wrong where the bar is qualification to practice law. It would be linguistically equivalent to I'm reading for a bachelors is physics. I wouldn't expect to hear that someone was reading for law though. Sep 11 '16 at 11:08
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    @BlessedGeek: I did my undergrad at Cambridge, at a point where this reading usage was still pretty common (considered a little pretentious/old-fashioned, but not awfully so). The usage I knew — whether conversational or in formal writing — was definitely of the form “I’m reading physics”. “I’m reading for physics” sounds absolutely wrong to my ear; “I’m reading for a degree in physics” not exactly wrong, but a little unidiomatic.
    – PLL
    Sep 11 '16 at 11:58

There's a difference here between typical British and American degree courses. In the US it's possible to pick up points towards the degree by studying a number of (potentially unrelated) elective subjects but then focusing 'majoring' on a particular one.

British degrees tend to be single-subject or much more rarely two-subject courses and are considered to be a single course of study which is formally described as 'reading' the subject.So, "I'm reading physics" or "I'm reading politics and economics" are the formally correct way of describing the activity.'Studying' is the less formal description.


The BE expression, "I am reading history at XYZ University, is archaic, localized English vocabulary used by Oxbridge (composite word - universities of Oxford & Cambridge) undergrads, especially by those who have "come up" from the UK's elite grammar schools and the super-elite public schools (fee-paying) such as Eton (alumni Princes William & Harry), Harrow (alumnus Sir Winston Churchill), Stowe (alumni David Niven & Sir Richard Branson) et al.

The specialized usage never really caught on with the postwar development of redbrick universities in the UK. Its use at Oxbridge ebbed and flowed at a time when state educated student numbers from comprehensive schools narrowed the gap with their grammar and public school counterparts and almost drew level in numbers. Reading history or whatever has been, to some extent, replaced by "studying" history. This was almost always the case with redbrick universities. The OP's "I am reading [subject] at X university" is the present continuous, but the simple present tense as in, "I read [subject] at X university", was never written or said but replaced by - as a matter of linguistic convention - "I study [subject] at X university".

If one were to write, "I read history at Oxford, then this would be understood as the past tense. The pronunciation of "read", but not its spelling, would change to "red", as in the color. (Wikipedia)

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    @PeterCordes The text now has paragraphs. Sep 10 '16 at 23:20
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    I was educated at a state school and read CS at Edinburgh. It was a common enough usage and most certainly not restricted to Oxbridge. Sep 11 '16 at 1:19
  • @GrahamToal Quite so! I am going to edit my screed later in today in an attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff. I'm surprised the moderators haven't swooped down to admonish me. I recognize that tertiary education in Scotland is very special, with a storied history that in someways matches (or even surpasses) that of the rest of the UK. Sep 11 '16 at 5:17
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    Note that the phrase is used on University Challenge - a popular TV quiz show - regardless of institution.
    – OrangeDog
    Sep 11 '16 at 7:12
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    @OrangeDog I have been an avid follower of U-C since the days of Bamber Gascoigne. U-C was required viewing Sunday afternoons over lunch. This was way back in the early 70's and, yes, "reading" history and the like was almost a mantra with all Oxbridge colleges. The other universities followed suit. However, I have noticed that this has changed somewhat since Paxo took over from Bamber as quiz master. I think you'll find that a minority of the Oxbridge people break with tradition and use the "studying" form. Ditto with other universities. It seems to me that they are making a "statement". Sep 11 '16 at 7:39

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