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.

  • 4
    This is a British usage I think--while I understand it (Am. E speaker), I don't use it or hear it used here – simchona Aug 25 '11 at 22:06
  • To add, the OED marks it as chiefly British in that context. – simchona Aug 25 '11 at 22:11
  • It's used in the past tense. – z7sg Ѫ Aug 25 '11 at 22:50
  • The past tense is also used as far as I can ascertain. This use is widespread in the UK, but in somewhat formal language. I suspect most students actually applying to university wouldn't be asking their contemporaries "what do you want to read at uni?". – Neil Coffey Aug 26 '11 at 0:54
  • Clearly the term is pretentious. But I like it! So let's say we are reading X at University. Studying is so ordinary. – user49798 Aug 15 '13 at 11:42

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.

  • This answer only 2 things, but doesn't answer the question with any detail. 1) "To read a subject" is British English 2) Gives a possible historical origin. But, does not state whether to read a subject is just to take a class in that subject or "major" in that subject. :( – Andrew Paul Simmons Apr 2 '19 at 2:38

I worked at a university and worked for a Reader in Law, a Law Lecturer and a Law Professor. I'm probably throwing a spanner but I always thought a reader, reading law was a more academic term as opposed to just a student studying.

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    In British universities, a Reader is an academic appointment, immediately below the level of Professor. Even though British students may be described as reading law, or history, or natural sciences, or any other subject, they are not referred to as readers. – Barrie England Oct 10 '11 at 19:42

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