Context Clues

The context of a word consists of the sentence containing the unknown word as well as the other sentences that surround it. The construction of the sentence may contain clues to the word's meaning.

1. Sentences Containing a Definition. Sometimes a definition is included in the sentence itself. This often occurs in textbooks.

Example: People who suffer from acrophobia, or fear of heights, shouldn't climb mountains.

The underlined word, acrophobia, is defined as fear of heights within the sentence itself.

2. Sentences Containing an Example. Sometimes an example is included to illustrate word meanings.

Example: Mr. Jones is a real recluse; he lives alone on the edge of town and he only comes out of his house to go to work.

Here the meaning of the underlined word, recluse, is suggested by the example given in the rest of the sentence (or a following sentence that might serve the same purpose). The example that he lives alone on the edge of town and he only comes out of his house to go to work suggests that Mr. Jones likes to be alone, and the definition of recluse does mean a person who lives a life away from society.

3. Sentences Containing Words That Show Contrast. Sometimes the unknown word is used in contrast to a word that is familiar in order to help the reader determine the meaning of the word.

Example: Unlike Mr. Dixon, who is extremely nervous, Mr. Benton is very mellow.

Here, mellow is shown in contrast to extremely nervous, so mellow must mean calm. In fact, mellow means mild, gentle, and agreeable.

4. The Logic of the Sentence. Sometimes an unfamiliar word can be figured out using your knowledge about the world or an understanding of a particular situation.

Example: When the baby-sitter put a pacifier in the baby's mouth, the baby stopped crying.

Probably you have seen a baby become quiet after someone put an object which looks like the nipple on a baby bottle into the baby's mouth. Remembering this might give you a clue for the meaning of pacifier, even if you have never seen the word written or heard it spoken before. Indeed, a pacifier is a device that imitates a baby bottle for babies to suck upon.

5. The Grammar--or Word Order--Within the Sentence. Where a word is located and the grammatical use of a word in a sentence may give clues to its meaning, especially if it is a word that has multiple meanings. Is the word being used as a verb, a noun, an adjective, or an adverb? Looking at the grammar of a sentence—whether or not you can remember the grammatical name of the part of speech-may especially help you on standardized tests where you may be given a word in a sentence and asked to choose which word in another sentence has the same meaning.

Example 1: The Celtics beat the Lakers by ten points.

Your knowledge of English grammar and sentence structure tells you that beat in this first sentence is an action word or verb even if you do not know what the word means in this context. You know from the sentence that beat refers to some kind of action— something the Celtics "did"--and is not a thing or an object. Of course, you already know that beat as it is used here means to defeat.

Example 2: The policeman walked his beat.

In this second example, beat is not the action word or verb in the sentence; the verb is "walked." Instead, beat is preceded by "his," which suggests that beat in this case must be a possession or a thing that can be "owned." To understand the word, you would look for further clues in other sentences about what thing the policeman owns. Indeed, in this second example beat is a noun meaning an area the policeman oversees on a regular basis, an area that in a sense "belongs" to him.

Example 3: I feel beat today.

In this example, the word order shows us that beat is not a verb or a noun but is a descriptive word, an adjective explaining how the subject "I" feels. Again, other sentences that follow might contain clues to what "I" feels that further suggest the meaning of beat. Beat in this context means exhausted.

Example 4: My brother beat me at a game of Monopoly.

In this final example, beat is again a verb. If a standardized test had examples 2, 3, and 4 as choices, you would be able to see that beat in example 4 is used in the same grammatical way as it is in example 1. Likewise, knowing the meaning of beat as an action word meaning to defeat in example 1 would also help you to draw the conclusion that it means to defeat in example 4.

Note: The similarity of grammatical use does not guarantee that the word beat in example 4 means the same as the word beat does in example 1, but you can definitely eliminate other choices based on grammar.

Based on Workshops presented by Kate Kinsella, 1998.

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