Understanding Subtext

Young Asian Woman Taking Selfie In Train
'The subtext of all selfies seems to be, "Here I am.". Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

The implicit or underlying meaning or theme of a written or spoken text. Adjective: subtextual. Also called subtextual meaning.

Although subtextual meaning is not expressed directly, it can often be determined from the linguistic or social context. This process is commonly described as "reading between the lines." 

Examples and Observations on Subtext

  • "[O]ne of the core philosophical tenets in Silicon Valley is 'Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Forward.' This idea shows up everywhere ... [T]he entire subtext of the failure motto is to diagnose the error, learn from it, and move on to the next iteration as quickly as possible. To do this, you can’t hide the failure, you must bring it out into the sunlight and analyze the ever-living hell out of it."
    (Steven Kotler, "The Innovator's New Dilemma: The Serious Emotional Toll Of Entrepreneurial Failure." Forbes, August 12, 2014)
  • "Subtext is the third dimension of creative writing. It's what endows drama with resonance, soulfulness, reality, and poetic ambiguity. Without it, you have soap opera, sketch comedy, comic books, and cartoons."
    (Alison Burnett, "What Lies Beneath." Now Write! Screenwriting, ed. by Sherry Ellis with Laurie Lamson. Penguin, 2010)
  • Subtext in the Classroom
    "Over and over again, we remind pupils to behave badly. We publicly reprimand a series of homework defaulters. The text says, 'Several of you haven't done your homework. This is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it.' However, the subtext is saying, 'He told us to do this. We didn't do it. We have ignored his instructions and made a fool out of him. He's reminding us that he's a teacher we ignore. So that's what we'll do.'"
    (Trevor Wright. How to Be a Brilliant Teacher. Routledge, 2009)
  • Subtext in Advertising
    "In the modern theory of texts, the underlying, connotative meaning on which a text is anchored is commonly referred to as its subtext ...
    "Take, as [an] example, Budweiser beer. Budweiser ads speak to average young males and to the realities of male bonding. This is why Bud ads show males hanging out together, performing bizarre male bonding rituals, and generally expressing culturally based notions of male sexuality. The subtext in these ads is: You're one of the guys, bud."
    (Ron Beasley and Marcel Danesi, Persuasive Signs: The Semiotics of Advertising. Walter de Gruyter, 2002)

    Subtext in Films

    • "We might say that the subtext is all the underlying drives and meanings that are not apparent to the character, but that are apparent to the audience or reader. One of the most delightful examples of subtext comes from the film Annie Hall, written by Woody Allen. When Alvie and Annie first meet, they look each other over. Their dialogue is an intellectual discussion about photography, but their subtext is written in subtitles on the screen. In their subtext, she wonders if she's smart enough for him, he wonders if he's shallow; she wonders if he's a schmuck like the other men she's dated, he wonders what she looks like naked."
      (Linda Seger, Creating Unforgettable Characters. Holt, 1990)

      The Subtext of Selfies

      • "If you think the first selfie was taken by some teen in his/her bedroom, cheesing with a Polaroid camera, you’re way off-base. The first 'selfies' weren’t even captured on film.

        "'It really begins in the 1600s when Rembrandt famously paints a self-portrait,' Ben Agger, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas at Arlington, told MTV News. . . .

        "Many selfies seem to be a call for praise, a sign that the takers are proud of their appearance and want others to affirm their attractiveness. Though according to some, the act of posting a selfie is more about identifying yourself than showing off your extreme hotness.

        "'The subtext of all selfies seems to be, "Here I am." And for some, "Here I am. I’m adorable,"' Agger said. 'And so that’s kind of a locating of oneself in time and space.'"
        (Brenna Ehrlich, "From Kim Kardashian to Rembrandt: A Brief History of the Selfie." MTV News, August 13, 2014)

      Irony and Subtext in Pride and Prejudice

      • "[O]ur understanding of metaphorical language depends not only on our linguistic competence but our cultural sensitivity, and our knowledge of more than just the surface structure of the words on the page. . . . Consider the short extract below from Jane Austen:
        It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a great fortune, must be in want of a wife.
        This is one of the most famous examples of irony in English literature and is the opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice (1813). Irony is a device used by many writers, and presents the reader with a situation where the author intends the meaning of his or her words to be interpreted differently and usually in a way opposite to their literal meaning. In other words, the surface meanings are opposed to the meanings that underlie the text.

        "The irony in the example lies in the fact that this sentence sets the scene for the novel and its topic of marriage. The truth of the statement is far from universal, but the mothers of unmarried young daughters take the statement as a fact: that is, the appearance of the rich young man causes them to behave accordingly in the pursuance of obtaining husbands for their daughters."
        (Murray Knowles and Rosamund Moon, Introducing Metaphor. Routledge, 2006)

        Shaping Subtexts

        • "If meanings could be freely reinterpreted in context, language would be a wet noodle and not up to the job of forcing new ideas into the minds of listeners. Even when language is used nonliterally in euphemism, wordplay, subtext, and metaphor--especially when it is used in these ways--it relies on the sparks that fly in a listener's mind as the literal meaning of a speaker's words collides with a plausible guess about the speaker's intent."
          (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature. Viking, 2007)

        The Lighter Side of Subtext

        • Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me. In the face. Didn't you hear me?
          Dr. John Watson: I always hear "Punch me in the face" when you're speaking, but it's usually subtext.
          ("A Scandal in Belgravia." Sherlock, 2012)
        • "When I'm stressed my subtext comes out as text."
          (Douglas Fargo in "H.O.U.S.E. Rules." Eureka, 2006)

          Pronunciation: SUB-tekst