How to read a linguistics article

Draft. Michael Dunn 2016-04-06

What kind of article is it?

Linguistics is at the intersection of the humanities and the social sciences, and linguistics articles appear in many different styles. What I call the Humanities type of linguistics article is generally long and discursive. The structure of a humanities article doesn't always reveal itself without close reading, and the author expects you to follow an argument from the beginning to the end. The Social sciences type of article is typically briefer, and is conventionally divided into section for Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion. You will meet other types as well, such as Review articles, that set out to survey a domain and summarise all the main publications.

1. Skim

When you skim an article you are trying to get a feel for the general approach. You should leaf through the article looking for subheadings, examples sentences, and figures. If the article has an abstract, read it! It might tell you everything you want to know.

After skimming the article you should be able to answer these questions:

  • What is this article about?
  • Is it methodological, conceptual, theoretical, empirical?
  • If it involves language data, does it have a broad comparative focus, or does it focus on one or a few languages?
  • Is it primarily a survey, a novel theoretical contribution, an empirical application of an existing theory or technique, a critique, or something else?
  • Are you familiar and comfortable with the methods, or will it take more work?

2. Quick read

For a humanities article, I recommend "reverse outlining". Sketch out the structure of the article as you go (you can do this as a mind map on a separate piece of paper, but depending on the writing style and format you might be able to do it by annotating the manuscript).

  • What is the article about?
  • What do we know about the topic already?
  • What is the author setting out to do?
  • How does she do it?
  • What are the arguments?
  • What is the evidence?
  • What are the conclusions?

For a social sciences article the structure is likely to be clearer, and annotating the manuscript is usually enough. It can be helpful to read the article in parts:

  • Abstract What is this article about?
  • Introduction What do we know about this topic and what is left to discover?
  • Discussion/Conclusion What did the author find?
  • Methods/Results How did the author come to this conclusion?

Look through the references too: this can tell you a lot about the perspective that the author is taking. Check if there are supplementary materials (often the case for social science articles) or an appendix, but you don't need to look at this yet.

3. Close read

Once you have a clear idea of what the paper is doing, think about what need to do to answer the following:

  • Do you think their answer is correct? complete? convincing?
  • What more do we need to know?

But the main question you want to ask is:

  • What are the implications? What contribution has the paper made to scientific understanding of the topic, and we do we go from here?

For a humanities paper you might need to read it from start to finish, thinking critically about each step in the argumentation. For a social sciences paper you might need to do this just for the methods section, but you might also need to delve into the supplementary materials, or even read something else to help you understand the methods. How much does the author rely on conclusions demonstrated in cited works? You might need to follow some of these up too (it's amazing how often cited works don't make the point that they're being used to support).