When you come upon a word you don’t understand while reading, you have three options. You can choose to look it up in a dictionary, ignore it, or try to figure out what it means based on the context in which it is used. If you’re in a test environment, you don’t usually have the luxury of a dictionary, and it certainly isn’t wise to ignore the word altogether. Therefore, it’s a good skill to learn how a word’s context can help you better understand what the word means.
Searching for a word’s context is as simple as looking at other words around the troublesome word. There are, in general, five main types of context clues:
The first context clues fall into the category of illustrations, examples, or explanations of the word. This may seem overly simple, but difficult words are often followed by information the writer uses to explain the word’s meaning. Look for words like such as, including, for instance, and like. This can be the author’s way of further clarifying a difficult word and you can sometimes make a logical guess about the word’s meaning from the example alone. Take a look at this sentence:
An occupation, such as that of a hatmaker or a postman, is important for anyone who wants to earn a steady wage.
In this sentence, we’re looking at the word occupation. Not only is it a long word that we might not understand at first, but it also has multiple meanings: an occupation can mean a job, but it can also mean to take up space. It can even be used to talk about military invasion, when one country is occupying another. When we look at the sentence, though, we see two examples given of the word in question. Neither a hatmaker or a postman are particularly prone to occupying other countries—or at least that’s not their primary purpose—so we can assume that the word occupation is referencing a job or employment opportunity.
A second category of context clues is synonyms. A synonym is a word that shares a near meaning with another word. For example, loud and noisy mean similar things but are two different words. Take a look at the following sentence to see how synonyms can be good context clues:
The patient’s hippocampus was an uncharted minefield. His memory was so bad, the psychiatrist wondered whether that part of the brain was even processing memory and emotion the way it should.
Hippocampus is a very confusing word in this sentence. Right away, the word brain tells us that the hippocampus is likely a part of the brain. In fact, it’s the part of the brain thought to be responsible for memory and emotion—but we could have guessed that too, right? The sentence says the psychiatrist was concerned the patient’s memory and emotion weren’t being processed “the way it should,” so we can deduce that the hippocampus is responsible for those processes. The clue had both synonyms, the word brain, and a full reinstatement of the initial sentence that clarified what the hippocampus was.
A third helpful context clue is the contrast or antonym clue. Antonyms are the opposite of synonyms. For example, hot and cold are antonyms. Sometimes, contrast sentences can tell us what a word is not, and that in turn can give us an idea of what the word is. Look at this:
Mary was known for having smooth skin, but to her horror she woke up on her wedding day with a papule on her nose.
Do you know what a papule is? Neither do I, actually. But I can see the word but contrasting whatever it is with Mary’s smooth skin. That, coupled with the clue about her nose, leads me to believe it is a zit of sorts, which in fact it is.
A fourth clue to help you gain a bit of context surrounding words you don’t understand is inference or general context. This is a bit more vague of an explanation, but it basically means that sometimes we don’t have clear synonyms or antonyms, and we don’t have an illustration after the difficult word. Sometimes we just have to look at the paragraph as a whole and put a few floating parts together. This is best explained with an example.
The haberdashery was Bob’s favorite place. He bought all his suits there. The staff was friendly, and always respectful.
There’s no direct description of what a haberdashery is, but the second sentence tells us that at the very least it sells suits. We also see that it’s Bob’s favorite place, so we can guess—without certainty, but it’s still a clue—that it’s a clothing place for men. The word staff couples with the word bought to let us know it’s likely a store of some sort. In fact, a haberdashery is a clothing boutique for men, which gets us pretty close to the assumptions we were able to make.
The final helpful context clue is the clue of punctuation. Sometimes commas or quotation marks can be used to clarify the meaning of a word. Quotation marks can show the word has special meaning, brackets can enclose additional explanation, italics can further define a word, etc. Think about the following:
Matcha (Japanese green tea) has many health benefits.
The parenthetical phrase gives a pretty clear description of what matcha is. In many ways, this kind of punctuation is the easiest context clue of all to deduce.
These are the five main clues you can fall back on when trying to decipher the meaning of a difficult word, but in general, remember that when you come upon a word that isn’t in your vocabulary you don’t have to give up—paragraphs often hold other clues that can give you helpful hints about what that mystery word actually means.
I hope that this video over context was helpful to you guys. See you later!