Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Out of Context

Did you ever find yourself in a conversation where you have no idea what the other person is saying? Maybe it’s the person at the car repair place using words like ‘carburetor’ or ‘camshaft,’ and you just nod your head and wait for the price.

Or maybe you find yourself in a football huddle, and Peyton Manning is saying things like ‘bootleg’ and ‘nickelback.’ Bootleg and nickelback? Is he talking about smuggling alcohol and Canadian rock bands? That seems weird when there’s a game on the line.

Or maybe you’re taking a test, and you’re supposed to analyze a reading passage. But there’s this word that might as well be in Klingon. You have no access to a dictionary. What do you do?

Well, we’re not going to teach you car terminology, and if Peyton Manning is yelling at you, you’re on your own. But we can work on that last situation. It’s all about determining the meaning of the word by using context. Context refers to the other words and sentences around the word in question.

Definitions and Examples

There are several great methods for using context to figure out what words mean. The first is to look and see if the definition of the word is right there. This can also be a restating of the word.

Consider this sentence: ‘While planning the party, Susan was prudent with the guest list, acting with great caution and care not to invite anyone with whom she wouldn’t want to jump around in a bounce house.’

What does ‘prudent’ mean? In this sentence, the definition of the word is right there. Who is being prudent? Susan. With what? The guest list. You don’t need to know what prudent means to figure that out. And how else is Susan’s behavior with the guest list described? She’s acting with great caution and care. So, what’s the definition of prudent? Acting with great caution and care.

Other times, you’ll see examples that help explain the word in question. This is very similar to finding the definition. Look at this sentence: ‘Devin procrastinated to avoid his homework all day, watching TV, playing video games and even writing thank you cards to his grandparents.’

What does ‘procrastinate’ mean? This time, it’s not defined elsewhere in the sentence. But we do have examples of what it means. We know that watching TV, playing video games and writing thank you cards are all forms of procrastination. If Devin should be doing his homework, but he’s doing these other things instead, then procrastination must mean delaying or putting off. Now, those examples helped us figure it out.

Synonyms and Antonyms

Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Those are two methods, but I want more.’ Okay! Sometimes you’ll see a synonym or antonym nearby. A synonym is another word that means the same thing. An antonym is a word that means the opposite. Oh, and you don’t even need to know what synonym and antonym mean to use this method. Let’s look at some examples.

Here’s our first one: ‘Mark wanted to impress his date with the dinner he prepared, but the massive ice sculpture centerpiece he made with a chainsaw between courses was just superfluous, extra and unnecessary.’ Wow, Mark. A for effort. But what does ‘superfluous’ mean? There are two synonyms right there: extra and unnecessary. And guess what? That’s the meaning of superfluous.

Here’s another: ‘Priscilla is so humble and modest that she could never be called haughty.’ What does ‘haughty’ mean? Again, we have two other adjectives: humble and modest. But notice the context. Priscilla could never be called haughty. Why? Because she’s humble and modest. This time, we have antonyms. So, haughty is the opposite of humble and modest. Therefore, it means arrogant and pretentious.


We’ve looked at some awesome methods for using context to determine the meaning of words. How about one more? Sometimes you can use substitution to figure out a word. This involves swapping out the word you don’t know for one you do know until it makes sense in context.

Here’s a sentence: ‘As you might expect, the acid that burned a hole in the table also has deleterious fumes.’ Okay, what does that word ‘deleterious’ mean? It’s used as an adjective to describe the fumes. But we don’t have any synonyms or antonyms. And there isn’t a definition or any examples in the sentence. Let’s try substitution.

What about ‘pleasant?’ Would that make sense in context? ‘As you might expect, the acid that burned a hole in the table also has pleasant fumes.’ Hmm, no. Burning a hole in the table is bad. Pleasant fumes are good. We wouldn’t connect those two things, would we? That’s using context.

So, it’s probably bad. What about ‘horrible?’ ‘As you might expect, the acid that burned a hole in the table also has horrible fumes.’ Okay, that’s closer. But it’s not quite right.

The acid burned a hole in the table. So, the fumes are also probably causing harm, right? What about ‘harmful?’ ‘As you might expect, the acid that burned a hole in the table also has harmful fumes.’ That’s it! That makes sense in context, and deleterious does mean harmful.

Lesson Summary

We learned how to use context to determine the meaning of words. We explored several methods for this.

First, we looked for the definition of the word in the sentence. We then looked for examples in the sentence that may help define the word. When a definition of some sort isn’t present, we looked for synonyms or antonyms to offer clues for us.

Finally, we tried substitution. This involves choosing a familiar word that maintains the original meaning of the sentence. Of course, we weren’t able to help with auto shop jargon or football terminology. Maybe next time!

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