Learning to Decipher Challenging Writing and Old English

Reading Tutorial

Learning to Decipher Challenging Writing and Old English


Writers, even the historical ones, have feelings. I know that that is a shocking thing to realize, but it’s true. When you learn to connect with what feelings any given writer is trying to express, it makes it easy to understand passages that otherwise seemed to be too wordy or complex.

Sample Problem

Benjamin Banneker was a free African American author and mathematician who lived from 1731 to 1806. In 1791 he wrote the following letter to Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was against freeing the slaves. In this passage Banneker is relating Jefferson’s passions for American liberty to his own passions for African-American freedom.

“Here was a time in which your tender feelings for [yourself] had engaged you thus to declare [that] you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature; but, Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies…”


Now 1790’s formal english wasn’t exactly the easiest material to read, but learning to get through it will be a skill that you need, and it will be a skill I am going to help you build.

I want you to read the material until you have a basic understanding of what Banneker has said; then I want you to read it out loud, and imagine that you are Banneker himself addressing Jefferson. I want you to make a very real effort to convince him, and that means using realistic tone and pacing that makes sense with what is written.

As you read it out loud you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what Banneker is saying, and more importantly why he said it the way he did. You’ll notice that it’s easily possible to apply a tone of ‘How dare you?’

“how pitiable is it to reflect that although you were so fully convinced of…”

Banneker was not holding back or trying to spare Jefferson’s feelings; it was an accusation! You will start to see significant phrasings all through the piece with a similar tone. You can do this with any old/very formal english text. If you make it personal to yourself and if you look at the emotions involved… Well, all of a sudden it actually sounds like something a human being would say!

About The Author

AP Writing, Beginning French, Advanced STEM
I attend Highland High School as a junior,I am an AP/Honors student, and I've taken 3 years of dedicated engineering coursework. I consistently score very well in all of my classes, and I'm comfortable teaching all students any subjects from K-11.
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