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This chapter is from the book

Understanding Context

When you are reading and come across an unfamiliar word, you can often look at the context to help you figure out at least an approximate definition for that word. The other words in the rest of the sentence or paragraph influence and clarify the unfamiliar word and provide its context. The context provides a setting for the word. Further, context clues help provide meaning and usage for the word. The most common context clues are discussed in more detail later in the chapter, but they are listed as follows:

  • Experience clues

  • Definition clues

  • Example clues

  • Comparison clues

Even if you don't know a certain term, you can put together clues from the context, a clue's tip-off phrase, or a suggested idea, to formulate a guess as to the meaning of a particular word. In addition, a sample context is a sentence or a part of a sentence that clarifies a definition, distinguishes similar meanings, and illustrates the level and mode of usage. For example, the test might present the following type of question:

The nice young man courteously opened the door.

  1. Hastily

  2. Rudely

  3. Slowly

  4. Politely

In this type of question, you need to find a synonym for the underscored word. By understanding the rest of the words in the sentence, you can assume that the young man was kind and polite in opening the door.

Although you might not always be able to look up a new word promptly, seeing the new word in its proper context is very important. You are more likely to remember a new word presented in context than if you were to simply study words from a list. The first couple of times you come across a new word, you might ignore it and skim to the next familiar word. However, after several encounters, you will begin to recall other times you have seen that same word. You are also likely to start noticing incidences of the new word when you hear it in conversation or on the radio or television. When you do learn its definition, you are more likely to remember it because of your experience with that word.

Experience Clues

Sometimes, you can guess at the meaning of an unfamiliar word simply because you have had a similar experience to the one the sentence or paragraph discusses. We can all relate to a number of common experiences, such as feelings you have upon receiving an award for commendable work, the death of a loved one, or falling in love. For example, consider this sentence: "Not even the caterer's late arrival could take away from the bride's euphoria." You might not understand the term euphoria, but you understand the extreme happiness that a bride feels on her wedding day, and you can therefore vaguely understand that euphoria means an exaggerated buoyancy and sense of bodily health.

Definition or Paraphrase Clues

Sometimes you can determine the meaning of a word by the way the writer describes the word by defining or paraphrasing it. We call this description a definition, or paraphrase, clue. A definition clue is one that actually defines a term, and a paraphrase clue is a phrase that restates the term in question.

You will often find definition clues in science and technical books, where the writers must constantly define new terms. Sometimes, commas set off the definition or paraphrase, which immediately follows the target word. In other instances, the definition or paraphrase comes later in the sentence or paragraph. The phrase is called or the word is often indicates a definition clue. For example, "The set of rules that govern how Microsoft programs run is called the Windows Operating System," shows how the phrase Windows Operating System is defined in usage.

Example Clues

In some instances, writers provide you with examples of the unfamiliar word that help you figure out its meaning. Often, parentheses, commas, or dashes offset an example clue. For example, in this sentence, "You can use almost any legume— such as black, navy, and kidney beans—to make a rich and hearty soup," the offset words tell you what a legume is, even if you have never farmed or cooked and have no idea what a legume is.

Noticing examples can help you infer the meaning of a word, and expressions like the following often precede an example clue:

  • such as

  • for example

  • for instance

  • to illustrate

  • including

Comparison and Contrast Clues

You can also discern the meaning of a word through comparison clues, wherein a writer compares or contrasts one word or point with another. A comparison clue tells you how things are the same, whereas a contrast clue tells you how things are different.

For example, examine this sentence, "Mike is rather withdrawn and subdued today and is rather lacking in his usual display of bonhomie and zeal". You might not understand the word bonhomie, but you most likely understand the word withdrawn. From this contrast, you can determine that Mike does not want to socialize today and that bonhomie means that Mike is normally of a genial, social nature and is very enthusiastic about life in general.

If you pay attention, you will see introduction words that tip you off that you have a comparison clue, like these:

  • but

  • however

  • instead

  • although

  • though

  • on the other hand

  • still

Words like these, on the other hand, often introduce comparison clues:

  • and

  • another

  • like

  • as

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