Monday, July 17, 2006

Context is Your Friend

Q. On your program, I heard you say that using context is just as important as using a dictionary, but I didn't catch the details.

A. Every time you look up a word that has multiple meanings, you must use context to decide which dictionary definition is most appropriate. You test the meanings one by one by seeing if they fit the sentence that sent you to the dictionary in the first place.

Using context to decipher meaning often makes a trip to the dictionary unnecessary. Context involves studying the ideas leading up to and following an unknown word. It demands attention and analysis. Watch for the following:

(1) WORD CLUES. The writer actually builds in a definition for a word and uses word signals such as X is/means Y, X is known as Y, that is, X is defined as, etc.
• The metal tip at the end of a shoelace is called an aglet.
• The practice of foretelling the future by consulting animal intestines was known as
• Skill in using one's hands or body is termed dexterity.

(2) PUNCTUATION CLUES. Instead of words to signal a definition, the writer may use commas, dashes, or parentheses.
• Lipomas (fatty tumors) are usually benign and thus not a cause for alarm.
• Duplicity, deliberate deceptiveness in action or speech, is one of the surest ways to destroy
a friendship.
• Appositives—words, phrases, or clauses placed next to a noun—often contain definitions.

(3) SYNONYMS. Watch for equivalent terms, either in clusters or in a connected sentence.
• Falciform swords were standard weapons in the Middle East. The sickle-shaped blade was
designed to behead enemies with a single blow.
• Beware of politicians who make nebulous and vague promises.
• Ostriches are probably the most familiar of the ratites. Such flightless birds have a long
history, dating back 135 million years to a huge flightless bird called Aepyornis.

(4) EXAMPLE. Watch for the signals for example, for instance, such as, and like.
• Pain is a useful warning signal, but most people rush to relieve it by taking analgesics such
as aspirins, barbiturates, codeine, and tranquilizers.
• Misdemeanors, for example, include drunkenness, disorderly conduct, small or petty thefts,
trespassing on private property, and loitering in a public place.
• Certain impediments may make a marriage invalid. For instance, being younger than the
minimum age set by law or already being legally married to someone else are impediments
to marriage.

(5) DESCRIPTIONS. Look for words that help you to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell.
• Dylan was emaciated. His clothes hung loosely from his frame, and his arms and legs could
have been used as toothpicks.
• An exoskeleton feels hard to the touch, cannot easily be squashed by applied pressure, and
offers a sort of armor by which a lobster, crab, or other creature can avoid the teeth, claws,
or tentacles of an enemy.
• It didn't take us long to figure out that he was a tyro at golf. He didn't know where to tee
off, he tried to use his putter as a driver, and he couldn't figure out how to start the golf

(6) CONTRAST OR OPPOSITES. Watch for contrast words such as but, yet, however, nevertheless, in spite of, and on the other hand. Watch also for negative signals such as no, not, never, and nor.
• People in authority should be careful not to hire mendacious aides. Assistants who are not
truthful will make their boss guilty by association.
• Some apartments are small and cramped and are no bargain. On the other hand, some are
• Some events or experiences do not happen only once. They recur.

So when you come across a word that you don’t know, train yourself to look at its setting, its surroundings--its context.

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