Basic Terms and Terminology Relating to Interpreting the Meaning of Words and Phrases Using Context

  • Slang and jargon: Slang and jargon are words that have a special meaning to those included in a particular group and without any meaning to those not included in that particular group.
  • Colloquialisms; informal words and phrases that are conversational, everyday words and phrases that are acceptable in informal writing and speech, but not acceptable in terms of formal writing and speech.
  • Idioms: A collection or a group of words that has become somewhat acceptable in the English language because of their ongoing and consistent use, despite the fact that the group of words does not have a literal meaning. Idioms have figurative meanings, therefore, the meaning of an idiom cannot be inferred or deduced in the same manner that words and phrases with literal meanings do.
  • Literal meaning of words: The meaning of a phrase, clause or sentence that can be logically inferred and deduced from the true dictionary accurate definitions of the words in a phrase, clause or sentence. The literal meaning of words is the opposite of the figurative meaning of words.
  • Figurative meaning of words: The meaning of a phrase, clause or sentence that cannot be logically inferred and deduced from the true dictionary accurate definitions of the words in a phrase, clause or sentence. The figurative meaning of words is the opposite of the literal meaning of words.
  • The root of a word: Also referred to as the base of a word and the stem of a word, is the main part of a word without any syllables before the root of the word, which is a prefix, or after the root of the word, which is a suffix.
  • Prefixes: The part of a word that is connected to and before the stem or root of a word
  • Suffixes: The part of a word that is connected to and after the stem of the word. Some suffixes, like "s", "es", "d" and "ed" which make words plural or of the past tense, are quite simple but others are more complex.
  • Antonyms: Words that have opposite meanings and can give the reader a context clue to determine the meaning of words and phrases
  • Synonyms: Words that have the same meaning and can give the reader a context clue to determine the meaning of words and phrases
  • Homophones are two or more words that sound identical and the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
  • Homographs are words that, as the name suggests, look the same and are spelled (graph) the same (homo) but have two distinctly different meanings and that are either pronounced differently or pronounced the same. For obvious reasons, these words are.
  • Contronyms: Words that are spelled the same but they have different meanings; these contronyms can give the reader a context clue to determine the meaning of words and phrases
  • Context: Simply defined, context is the surrounding information and clues that occur prior to and after the word or phrase that is not known or misunderstood.

In reality, it is most likely that no human being is able to instantly and spontaneously know the meaning of ALL words and phrases using their memory and by rote. For this reason, many, if not most, human beings use electronic and hard copy references to determine the meanings of words and phrases. For example, when a reader does not know the meaning of a particular word or phrase they can, and should, look it up using a reference such as:

  • An online electronic dictionary
  • An online electronic thesaurus
  • A hard copy dictionary such as the Miriam Webster Dictionary
  • A hard copy thesaurus such as Roget's Thesaurus

Please note that the above references cannot be used on the TEAS examination, therefore, you must employ other skills to determine the meanings of words and phrases that are not known to you.

Skills, other than those used to utilize online and hardcopy references to determine the meanings of words and phrases, will be discussed and described in the section below.

Barriers Relating to the Determination of the Meanings of Words and Phrases

Although there are several skills that can be successfully and accurately employed to discover the meaning of unknown words and phrases, some of these words and phrases are more challenging and difficult than others. Knowledge of some of these more challenging and difficult words and phrases can assist you to discover and decipher the meanings of unknown words and phrases.

Some of the barriers relating to the determination of the meanings of words and phrases include the use of:

Slang and Jargon

Slang and jargon are words that have a special meaning to those included in a particular group and without any meaning to those outside of the group and not included in that particular group. Examples of some of these groups that may know the meaning of a particular slang word and jargon include nurses, the young age group, the older age group, school teachers and those in the military.

Because slang and jargon are only readily recognized and defined by only some or a few, it is necessary for others to employ other skills to discover the meaning of slang and jargon in a reading text or with the spoken word.

Examples of slang words include:

  • Dig it (Meaning understand it)
  • Gig (Meaning a job)
  • On the up and up (Meaning proper and honest)
  • The cat's meow (Meaning stylish)
  • Spiffy (Meaning fashionable and stylish)
  • Left holding the bag (Meaning being falsely accused of something)
  • Psych out (Meaning being tricked or deceived)
  • Far out (Meaning in style or advanced)
  • Hip (Meaning cool and contemporary)
  • Cool it (Meaning calm down)
  • The skinny (Meaning the facts and the truth)
  • Cool (Meaning cool and contemporary)

Examples of slang words that have a special meaning to those included in a group and without any meaning for those not included in the particular group include:

  • The brig (Meaning military prison)
  • Hall duty (A teacher's assignment to monitor the hallways when students are moving from one classroom to another or exiting the building at the end of the school day)
  • On the beat (Meaning working for police officers)
  • On the job (Meaning employed as a police officer)
  • Shift (Meaning hours of scheduled work for nurses and police officers)

Many uses of jargon in the written word and with the spoken word include abbreviations while others do not.

Examples of jargon that has a special meaning to those included in a group and without any meaning for those not included in the particular group include:

  • NPO (The abbreviation for the Latin term nil per os which means nothing by mouth which is used by nurses and other health care workers)
  • AWOL (The military abbreviation for absent without leave. Absent without leave means an unauthorized failure to appear for duty as scheduled)
  • Etiology (A cause of a disease or disorder. Etiology is often used among nurses and other healthcare professionals)

Colloquialisms

Colloquialisms are informal words and phrases that are conversational, everyday words and phrases that are acceptable in informal writing and speech, but not acceptable in terms of formal writing and speech. Many colloquialisms are misspelled and some are only understandable to a particular geographic area of the United States. Additionally, colloquialisms have figurative meanings rather than literal meanings. For this reason, skills other than using online and hardcopy resources to discover the meanings of these colloquialisms are necessary.

Some colloquialisms include:

  • Put out (Meaning inconvenienced)
  • Shove off (Meaning leave)
  • Go nuts (Meaning going insane)
  • Sort of (Meaning kind of)
  • What's up (Meaning what's happening)
  • Wanna (Meaning want to)
  • Going bananas (Meaning going crazy or getting angry)
  • All wet (Meaning confused and incorrect)
  • Gonna (Meaning going to)
  • Buzz off (Meaning go away)
  • The middle finger (Meaning a profane gesture)
  • Go to hell (Meaning a curse)

Colloquialisms may also vary and differ among various geographical regions in the United States. For example, the southern states of our nation may use the colloquialism like "y'all" which is understandable by southern Americans to mean "all of you" but not always understandable to those in other regions of our country.

Idioms

Idioms are a collection or a group of words that has become somewhat acceptable in the English language because of their ongoing and consistent use, despite the fact that the group of words do not have a literal meaning. Idioms have figurative meanings, therefore, the meaning of an idiom cannot be inferred or deduced in the same manner that the meanings of words and phrases with literal meanings can be inferred or deduced.

Many idioms are proverbs such as, "You cannot judge a book by its cover" and "The pen is mightier than the sword". These proverbs do not have literal meanings, but instead, they have figurative meanings. For example, the proverb "You cannot judge a book by its cover" does not mean that the contents of a book cannot be judged by its exterior cover. Instead, this proverb, as a proverb and an idiom, means that first impressions of people, places and things are not always accurate and they can be highly misleading. For example, a person's attire does not necessarily offer any facts or reliable information about the person, their character or their values, for example. And the proverb or idiom "The pen is mightier than the sword" has little to do with a pen or a sword. Instead, this proverb suggests that we are much more likely to convince people and succeed with others with our written or oral words rather than force, aggression and/or hostility.

Some commonly used idioms and their figurative meanings are listed below:

  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
    Figurative meaning: Having something is worth more than having to get more with effort or taking the chance of losing the "one bird" that you already have.
  • Stuck between a rock and a hard place
    Figurative meaning: Both choices are equally difficult
  • Spill the beans
    Figurative meaning: Divulging a secret
  • Kick the bucket
    Figurative meaning: Die
  • Hit the sack or hit the hay
    Figurative meaning: Going to bed
  • Cold shoulder
    Figurative meaning: Unfriendly and cold
  • A piece of cake
    Figurative meaning: Simple and easy
  • This situation is black or white
    Figurative meaning: A situation that is clear and unambiguous
  • Killing two birds with one stone
    Figurative meaning: Accomplishing more than one thing with a singular action
  • Chickening out
    Figurative meaning: Opting out of something because of fear and nervousness

As you are taking your TEAS examination, you may be asked to demonstrate your ability to comprehend a reading passage that contains one or more idioms. If you don't understand the idiom, you should attempt to discover its meaning by looking at the idiom in the context of the sentence, or the paragraph or the entire reading passage. Context often gives us a lot of information about not only idioms but also about words that you do not know the meaning of.

Figurative Meanings of Words and Phrases

A figurative meaning of a word is the opposite, or antonym, for the literal meaning of a word.

The literal meaning of words is defined as the dictionary definition of the word; the literal meaning of a phrase, clause or sentence can be logically inferred and deduced from the true dictionary accurate definitions of the words in a phrase, clause or sentence. The literal meaning of words is the opposite of the figurative meaning of words.

The figurative meaning of words is defined as the meaning of a phrase, clause or sentence that cannot be logically inferred and deduced from the true dictionary accurate definitions of the words in a phrase, clause or sentence. The figurative meaning of words is the opposite of the literal meaning of words.

Although you may be very certain of some figurative meanings, you may not at all be able to understand and decipher many others. For this reason you will have to use and employ skills other than dictionary skills to determine the meaning of a word or phrase.

Figures of Speech

Some figures of speech like a simile, a metaphor and personification pose challenges to the understanding of comprehension of words and phrases in a reading text as well as with the spoken word.

Similes are a figure of speech that compares two unlike things; similes typically include the word "like" or "as". A metaphor is the figure of speech that involves a comparison of two things that are not similar but they have some single characteristic in common; and personification is also a figure of speech. Personification entails giving lifelike and human characteristics to an inanimate and/or non human thing or being.

Figures of speech, similar to slang, jargon, colloquialisms, idioms, and figurative meanings add confusion with their special challenges to reading comprehension. In fact these elements in the spoken and written word make the English language one of the most, if not the most, difficult language to master.

An example of a simile is "She was as red as a beet".

An example of a metaphor is "Her skin was snow white".

An example of personification is "The wind pranced through the trees."

In summary, some of the barriers relating to the determination of the meanings of words and phrases, such as those used with and in slang, jargon, colloquialisms, idioms and words with a figurative meaning, are challenging and difficult, however, the skillful use of noncontextual and contextual reading comprehension skills can often overcome these barriers.

Using Skills Other Than Contextual Skills to Discover the Meanings of Unknown Words and Phrases

As just stated above, the skillful use of noncontextual and contextual reading comprehension skills can often overcome barriers to this comprehension.

Some of the skills, other than the use of contextual skills, that facilitate the comprehension and understanding of words and phrases that are unknown to the reader of a text and the receiver of a spoken message include

The following can be read more about within our Using Context Clues to Determine the Meaning of Words or Phrases section:

The following can be read more about within our Using Conventions of Standard English Spelling section:

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