How to Define Words Using Context

Often, a reader will come across a word that he does not recognize. The reader needs to know how to identify the definition of a word from its context. This means defining a word based on the words around it and the way it is used in a sentence. For instance, consider the following sentence: The elderly scholar spent his evenings hunched over arcane texts that few other people even knew existed. The adjective arcane is uncommon, but the reader can obtain significant information about it based on its use here. Based on the fact that few other people know of their existence, the reader can assume that arcane texts must be rare and only of interest to a few people. And, because they are being read by an elderly scholar, the reader can assume that they focus on difficult academic subjects. Sometimes, words can even be defined by what they are not. For instance, consider the following sentence: Ron’s fealty to his parents was not shared by Karen, who disobeyed their every command. Because someone who disobeys is not demonstrating fealty, the word can be inferred to mean something like obedience or respect.

Defining a Word

Many times, readers come across words that they are unfamiliar with, so it’s important that readers understand how to determine the definition of a word based on its context. This means looking at the words around it and how the word is used in the sentence. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

This first example says, “The elderly scholar spent his evenings hunched over arcane texts that few other people even knew existed.” The unfamiliar word here is “arcane,” but you will see that you could pretty much determine the definition of that word based on the words around it.

Here we see the word “elderly” coming before “scholar,” so if only an elderly scholar would be studying these texts, then it means that it must be some kind of complex subject that only someone who has acquired much knowledge and wisdom would understand.

Then we also see that it says that, “few other people even knew existed,” so that means it’s something rare or something that only a few people would know about. Here we have easily and quickly determined the definition of arcane.

This next sentence says, “Ron’s fealty to his parents was not shared by Karen, who disobeyed their every command.” Now, you’ll notice here that there’s not very many words that tell us the definition of fealty. Instead we see words that tell us what fealty is not, because here it says, “Karen, who disobeyed their every command.”

Here Ron is being contrasted with Karen, so if fealty is not “disobeying their every command,” then fealty must mean “obeying” or “being faithful to,” because notice here we’re seeing that Karen disobeys their every command, but Ron does not, so fealty must mean “not disobeying,” in other words it means “obeying.”

You see here how, by looking at context clues, a reader can quickly determine the definition of a word. Although it may not be the exact definition, it generally will be the definition for that word in that particular sentence. This can be very helpful because it helps the reader be more efficient because determining the definition of a word based on context is much quicker than consulting a dictionary or a thesaurus.

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: August 14, 2019