Context Clues

If you’re reading a text and you’re not sure what a word means, how can you determine the meaning without a dictionary? There are several ways we can use a word’s context to determine the meaning.


  • discourse that surrounds a language unit and helps to determine its interpretation
  • the set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event; “the historical context” (Source)

Deciphering Context Clues

Basic Steps

There are several basic ways we can check an unknown word’s meaning using its context:

  1. Synonyms: Are there any words that might have similar meaning?
  2. Antonyms: Are there any words that might have the opposite meaning?
    While she does calisthenics daily, her brother is a couch potato.
  3. Explanations
  4. Sentence role: What does the word do in the sentence?
Advanced Topics

There are eight parts of speech:

  1. nouns
  2. pronouns
  3. adjectives
  4. verbs
  5. adverbs
  6. prepositions
  7. conjunctions
  8. interjections

More detailed information is available here.

  1. Figure out what part of speech the word is.
    1. Adjectives come before a noun
      dignified, wealthy people
      We know that “dignified” is an adjective because it’s clearly describing people. Add to it the fact that “wealthy” has  fairly positive connotations and we understand that “dignified” must be something positive.
    2. Verbs follow “do not”
      1. Do not wallow in the tub.
        Whatever “wallow” means, we know it is something we do. We also know it’s something we do in a tub, which eliminates many possible meanings.
      2. Don’t pontificate; you don’t know what you’re talking about.
        What ever “pontificate” means, we know it is an action. Furthermore, we know that it’s probably a form of speaking.
    3. Adverbs usually end in “-ly.”
  2. Recognize the rhetorical function
    1. examples (Source)
      A writer might try to provide one or more examples or illustrations to indicate what a word means. Remember that these examples are not synonyms. Key phrases:

      1. such as
      2. including
      3. consists of.
      4. colons (:)
      5. dashes (-)


      1. The river was full of noxious materials such as cleaning agents from factories and pesticides from the nearby farms.
      2. This third grade was full of precocious children. One child had learned to read at two and another could do algebra at age 6.
      3. When going to an office party you should show your best decorum, for example, dress your best, drink and eat moderately, and be sure to thank the host before you leave.
    2. synonyms and definitions
      Synonyms are words that have similar meaning, like large and big. Often writers might provide synonyms in sentences, possibly even anticipating reader misunderstanding.

      1. Example: My opponent’s argument is fallacious, misleading – plain wrong.
        We can determine from this sentence that “fallacious”  must mean wrong: the author has provided definitions in an effort to stress just how incorrect his opponent’s argument is.
      2. I am glad we have replaced worn, threadbare tablecloths and napkins with new linen.
        “Worn” and “threadbare” are synonyms, and so “worn” gives a hint about the meaning of “threadbare.”
    3. antonyms and contrasts
      Antonyms are words that have opposite meaning: hot and cold.

      1. Although some men are loquacious, others hardly talk at all.
        By contrasting “loquacious” men with those who “hardly talk at all”, we know that “loquacious” means “talkative.” (Stems should help with this, as loqu means “talk.”)
      2. They sifted through the rubbish of the fires to find anything of value.
        The “anything of value” indicates that rubbish is not something of value.
    4. Function in sentence
      If we look at what a word is doing in a sentence, we have gone a long way to determining the word’s meaning.

      1. With her hair all disheveled
        Looking like she had just awoken
        “Disheveled” seems to be describing “hair.” Add to it the explanation of the second line (“Looking like she had just awoken”) and it becomes clear that “disheveled” hair is messy hair.
      2. Couched in his kennel, like a log,
        With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
        The dog is sleeping in the kennel. The only logical explanation is that a “kennel” is a dog house.
  3. experience or sense of the sentence

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