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Three Levels of Interpretation


Explanations > Meaning > Three Levels of Interpretation

Accepted | Rational | Personal | See also


Meaning, the sense we make of things, may be created in speech or identified in analysis. This meaning can can be described as being at one of the three levels below. This is particularly significant when metaphor or some other idiomatic sense is used and interpretation is not an easy task.


At the 'accepted' level the interpretation is one that is commonly made and is easily accepted by others. When you use the metaphor or interpretation with others, they are likely to understand what you mean. An accepted interpretation uses the logic that somebody else has used, assuming this is valid.

For example if you say 'I'm a bear with sore head today', most people will understand that you feel pretty grouchy and will be more cautious around you than usual. Use of the accepted metaphor means people will not think you believe you are a bear.

In literature or poetry analysis, an accepted interpretation would be one where the piece being considered has already been analyzed by an accepted authority. For exams, using accepted interpretations, particularly those by established commentators, is a safe bet.


A rational interpretation is one where you have understood something in a certain way and are able to explain how you came to this conclusion using a method that most people will understand and may well accept as producing a reasonable interpretation.

A rational interpretation that is being offered to others may well be followed by the argument by which it was derived, or else this may emerge through consequent conversation. For example, if you say a person is like a cake, this is not a common comparison and you may have to explain to others how the person in question is all mixed up, like a cake. Even if the other people do not particularly think your comparison is very erudite, they will understand your logic and get what you are trying to say.

In literature or poetry analysis, an acceptable interpretation may be one which uses references other parts of the text to support the conclusions made. The highest grades are often gained by students who discover new meaning and are able to justify it in a rational way.


A personal interpretation is one where an individual finds meaning in something but cannot provide a rational explanation for this meaning. This is very common as we find personal meaning in many of our daily experiences.

Personal meaning may sometimes be turned into rational meaning by reflection on what unconscious thoughts may have led to the interpretation. This is a classic subject of conversation, where one person says something without much thought and the other asks 'Why do you say that?' and the ensuring discussion draws out the rationale from the original speaker.

In literature or poetry analysis personal interpretation may be accepted in everyday situations but in exam conditions is likely to get low marks. Saying 'I think Romeo is an idiot' without justifying your thoughts is not the best way to succeed in gaining English Literature qualifications.

So what?

When people make assertions or use metaphor, look into the meaning they are created to discover the logic they are using and then decided whether to challenge or accept it.

Also consider what you are thinking yourself and how you get to your own meaning. As necessary, be more rational and able to explain why you say what you do.

See also

Metaphor, Argument


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