How to Use Context to Determine the Meaning of Words
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- 0:12 The Importance of Context
- 3:00 Steps to Determining Meaning…
- 5:22 Using Multiple Meanings Intentionally
- 7:38 Lesson Summary
English is one of those languages in which many words have more than one meaning. In this lesson, we will learn how to use context to know which meaning a word is using within a sentence.
The Importance of Context
Like many languages, English is filled with words that have more than one meaning, which are usually referred to as homographs. Or, even more confusing, we have words that are heteronyms. For instance, what comes to mind when you see the letters t-e-a-r? Your mind immediately makes a decision on how this word is pronounced and what it means. However, you can't possibly know what this word truly is meant to be without the proper context. The words around it let you know if someone is ripping a piece of paper in two, running fast down a hall, or having a good cry. It is only definable by the words that surround it.
Merriam-Webster defines context as the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can shed light on its meaning. Context allows us to know what is 'is' and what it isn't. Context is powerful, which is why people get so offended when they feel their words have been taken 'out of context'. They understand that words, sentences, passages can mean a lot of different things. For instance:
Blacks are always the heaviest - or fattest, if we want to be completely honest. The best way to use them is when you want to completely destroy a place! In fact, that what they are best at - total destruction and not much else! Blacks are not nearly as multifaceted as whites, who always have more than one skill.
Whoa! Did you squirm a little? Were you unsure of where I was going? Was I pushing the envelope or being controversial? Or, did you know right away that I was trying to explain Angry Birds, the very popular gaming application? Understanding context would help you know whether to prepare for protest, laugh, or simply learn something new.
Reading comprehension cannot fully happen without proper context. Let's go back to our letters t-e-a-r to examine context a little more closely. Let's walk our way through the following sentence:
In her tear down the hall, she shed a tear because of a tear on her dress.
When you read through the sentence the first time, you might be able to figure out the proper definition and pronunciation of the word t-e-a-r in each instance it's used, but let's be systematic in our approach nonetheless.
Steps to Determine Meaning From Context
Here are four simple steps for determining the meaning from context when dealing with words that can have more than one meaning.
Step 1: Look at the words that surround your target word.
Step 2: Think about each possible definition for your target word.
Step 3: Substitute a different word with the same meaning - a synonym - of each possible definition of your target word. If you end up with a tie, go for antonyms (words with the opposite meaning) and see if what results make any sense or is in a totally different ballpark.
Step 4: Using what you discovered in Step 3, choose the pronunciation and definition of your target word that creates the best fit for the context in which your target word is being used.
So, let's walk our way through the first time we see the word t-e-a-r in our target sentence.
In her tear down the hall, she shed a tear because of a tear in her dress.
Step 1: The words preceding the first t-e-a-r are 'in her,' and the following words are 'down the hall.'
Step 2: T-e-a-r can mean 'run quickly,' it can mean 'cry,' or it can mean 'to rip.'
Step 3: 'In her quick run down the hall.' OK, that's a possibility. 'In her cry down the hall.' Hmm, let's see. 'In her rip down the hall.'
Well, I don't know about you, but as we move to Step 4, it seems that the only substitution that makes the most sense is 'a quick run.' So we are confident in saying this first use of the word t-e-a-r is referring to tear, meaning 'a quick run down the hall.' So, what you can do is go through these same steps for the second and third use of our target word, t-e-a-r, in the sentence.
Using Multiple Meanings Intentionally
When reading works, there are times when the author chooses a word that has more than one meaning intentionally. The author doesn't necessarily want you to choose just one meaning for the word, but to embrace multiple meanings of the word. This is often used in religious writing, philosophical writing, dramatic writing, comedic writing, and social and political commentary. Of course, multiple meaning isn't limited to these categories; it's just when it's found more often than not. Let's take a look at this:
It has been a very trying time for all, but especially for me. As I looked out the window, I realized just how dark and how cold everything was around me. I wondered when the light would come and if it would also drive away the cold in addition to the dark.
In this passage the word 'dark' can be used to describe the blackness of night, but equally fitting would be other definitions of dark, including grim and depressing as well as secret, closed, remote, or void of understanding. In fact, the author may want you to consider all of these definitions when reading the word 'dark' in the passage. The same can be said for the word 'cold.' While your first response would be to utilize the definition concerning temperature, the author could very well want you to take into account the additional meanings of a lack of warmth and human emotion as well as giving the appearance of being dead.
Remember: context helps you understand the truth of what the author was trying to portray in the words that they used. You must know context to comprehend a work - no matter how short that work might be. Without context there is no meaning. You also want to consider context in your own writing. Only use words with multiple meanings if it is absolutely necessary. If it is necessary, make sure you put enough words around it that will guide the reader to define that word in the proper way.
Now, let's recap what we've learned. First, context is defined as the parts that surround a word or passage in a discourse, and can shed light on its meaning. You must know the context to fully understand any work that you are reading. There are four steps you can use to discover the proper context in which a word or passage should be taken. Those steps are:
1) Look at the words surrounding your target word.
2) Consider each of the possible definitions of your target word.
3) Substitute synonyms into the passage and see which ones fit well, and if they have a tie, you can go on to antonyms.
4) Choose the definition that fits best within the passage.
Also remember, there are some works in which multiple meaning should be considered; you don't choose just one definition, you apply all those that fit for the word. And when it comes to your own writing, try to use words whose meanings will be easily clear for the reader. If you must use a word with multiple meanings, make sure you surround it with enough helpful context so that the proper meaning will be easily deduced by your audience. And, of course, you have to understand your audience to know what words should really be used.
Remember - context is everything. Without context, writing has very little meaning.
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