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What Is a Source Text?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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A source text can be one of several different things, depending on the context in which the term is used. In literature, it can refer to the original version of a text that has been adapted or translated. Historians use the term to denote a piece of evidence on which a given historical argument depends. For a journalist, a source text is also a piece of evidence, although generally a contemporary one. Additionally, the term can also refer to a block of raw text that is fed into a computer program as input.

Works of literature are often translated or redacted for publication. When this is done, the original and complete source text of a work is generally reviewed in its original language. Translators work from this source text to produce translated versions of the text, and editors may shorten or modify portions of a text for reasons ranging from political necessity to space considerations. Scholars will typically prefer to study the original text of a work of literature, as each translation or redaction alters the meaning in ways ranging from the subtle to the profound.

History and historiography also depend on source texts. When historians work with sources, they devote most of their attention to work with primary sources. These materials were written during a given historical period and convey firsthand, unfiltered information about the past. For a historian, a source text might be anything ranging from official archival documents to published newspapers to private diaries. Historians place great emphasis on the use of these sources but also attempt to read them critically, as the writers of such documents almost universally wrote with specific agendas in mind and produced texts reflecting their own views and biases.

Journalists, too, employ source texts. Journalism sourcing typically relies on materials produced in the recent past. Such source materials ideally come from individuals with significant knowledge about a particular story or issue and are similar to sources used by historians, although historians typically work with much older materials. These source materials, too, should, ideally, be vetted in order to ensure that they are largely unbiased or, at least, that the bias in the materials is known and can be acknowledged and worked around.

Finally, a source text can be a piece of text data fed into a computer program. Many computer programs are designed to format a piece of raw text data. Some programs take data from files and import that data into database applications. Others take plain text and modify it into hypertext for use in web pages or other specialized applications.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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