sub·​text ˈsəb-ˌtekst How to pronounce subtext (audio)
: the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text)
subtextual adjective
subtextually adverb

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A literary text often has more than one meaning: the literal meaning of the words on the page, and their hidden meaning, what exists "between the lines"—the subtext. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, for example, is about the Salem witchcraft trials of the 17th century, but its subtext is the comparison of those trials with the "witch hunts" of the 1950s, when many people were unfairly accused of being communists. Even a social conversation between a man and a woman may have a subtext, but you may have to listen very closely to figure out what it is. Don't confuse subtext with subplot, a less important plot that moves along in parallel with the main plot.

Examples of subtext in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web The breezy Radical Wolfe is the documentary that’s the most fun this year, even though its subtext is quite serious. Armond White, National Review, 22 Sep. 2023 Its cosmopolitan spirit and magnificent five-centuries-old heritage of layered influences was the subtext that Benaïm drew upon for the exhibition’s curation. Tiziana Cardini, Vogue, 7 Nov. 2023 Vermont was an important subtext of our friendship. Dan Chiasson, The New York Review of Books, 2 Nov. 2023 Although lesser known than the Susan Cabot-starring The Wasp Woman (1959), Edward Dein’s The Leech Woman is surprisingly effective in its subtexts about an aging housewife cast aside by her cruel husband. Nicholas Bell, SPIN, 24 Oct. 2023 The fact that this is the legacy of a Jewish woman largely becomes subtext. Vanessa Friedman and Max Lakin, New York Times, 20 Oct. 2023 There’s an obvious racial subtext for many of those voters’ concerns about crime. David Lauter, Los Angeles Times, 20 Oct. 2023 Race is a subtext that runs through the case against Trump. Camila Dechalus, Washington Post, 28 Aug. 2023 Part of the original subtext of the story was that Ebenezer Scrooge was Scottish. Lydia Mansel, Travel + Leisure, 12 Oct. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'subtext.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

1862, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of subtext was in 1862

Dictionary Entries Near subtext

Cite this Entry

“Subtext.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Dec. 2023.

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