Glossary of Terms and Terminology Relating to Using Context Clues to Determine the Meaning of Words and Phrases

  • 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
  • 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

Learning Vocabulary With Clues and Context

Although guessing the correct answer is not a good test taking strategy, there are times when an educated guess may be the only choice that you have. One such time is when you are asked to know the meaning of a word and you are not certain of its meaning. At these times, you may feel completely baffled and without a clue. Fortunately, there are a couple of things that you can do when you feel this way.

Some of the strategies that you can and should use when this occurs include:

Examining a Word's Root

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.

For example, examine the word "reinstatement". The root of the word is "state"; the prefix for the word reinstatement is "re" and the suffix for the word "reinstatement" is "ment".

You will learn more about prefixes, suffixes and stems of words in the section immediately below this one.

Attempting to Decipher a Word's Meaning by Examining the Word in Context

Simply defined, the context of an unknown word is the words, phrases, clauses and sentences surrounding the unknown word. These words, phrases, clauses and sentences can often give you some very important clues about the word and these clues may be just enough for you to make an educated guess about the true meaning of the word.

For example, examine this sentence and determine the meaning of "dubious":

"Although some believe in the existence of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and the existence of extraterrestrial life, more are dubious about these things."

When you examine the word "dubious" in the context of this sentence, you should be able to make some inferences and educated guesses about the meaning of the word "dubious". The meaning of this word is to be doubtful. This inference and educated guess can be arrived at by comprehending and understanding the context within which the word occurred. This sentence states that "some believe in the existence of unidentified flyer objects and the existence of extraterrestrial life" but still more are doubtful about these things. The word "although" in this sentence is also an important clue because it suggests that the opposite of "some believe" is "more are dubious" meaning more are doubtful.

Here are a couple of more sentences with which you should be able to decipher and discover the meaning of some unknown words:

  • What is the meaning of "indigenous" and "marsupials" in this sentence?

Sentence: In addition to the flora and fauna in Australia, its indigenous creatures include some of the most interesting vertebrates including marsupials.

The word "indigenous" means native to a particular area like Australia; and drawing on your prior knowledge of Australia, you may remember that kangaroos are native to Australia and your educated guess about the meaning of marsupial should be a classification of animals that includes kangaroos.

  • What is the meaning of "complement" in this sentence?

Sentence: It would be a good idea to complement this meal with a nice desert.

The words "complement" and "compliment" are homophones that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. When these words are spoken orally, they sound identical and, when they are written, they appear differently because they are spelled differently. In the context of this sentence, the word "complement" means complete the meal off. If you did not know that "complement" with an "e" indicates completion, you should be able to deduce the meaning of "complement" with an "e" in the context of the sentence.

  • What is the meaning of "compliment" in this sentence?

Sentence: Everyone likes a compliment for a job well done.

Again, the words "complement" and "compliment" are homophones that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. When these words are spoken orally, they sound identical and, when they are written, they appear differently because they are spelled differently. In the context of this sentence, the word "compliment" means a favorable comment about another. If you did not know that "compliment" with an "i" indicates a favorable comment, you should be able to deduce the meaning of "compliment" with an "i" in the context of the sentence.

Discovering the Meaning of a Word by Examining the Surrounding Text for Antonyms, Synonyms, and Contronyms

Antonyms are words that have opposite meanings and synonyms are words that have the same meaning. Like synonyms, antonyms can be a noun, verb, adjective or adverb.

For example, here is a list of antonyms:

  • Up and down
  • In and out
  • Dead and alive
  • Male and female
  • Inward and outward
  • Old and young
  • Near and far
  • Right and left
  • Large and small
  • Day and night
  • Hot and cold

And, here is a list of synonyms:

  • Old and elderly
  • Automobile and car
  • Infant and baby
  • Gender and sex
  • Proximal and near
  • Distal and far
  • Cold and cool
  • Hot and warm
  • Large and huge
  • Small and tiny
  • Under and beneath

Less commonly referred to and referenced are contronyms. Similar to antonyms and synonyms, contronyms can give valuable clues in terms of the meaning of an unknown word. Simply defined, a contronyms are words that are spelled the same but they have different meanings. The only way to determine the meaning of a word that is a contronym is to look for its meaning in the context of the phrase or sentence.

An example of a contronym is skip which can be a verb meaning a hop and skip can also be a verb meaning omit.

Other contronyms include:

  • Clip which can mean cut with a scissor and also mean fasten with a paper clip or staple
  • Left meaning a direction that is the opposite of right and also as the remainder of something that, for example, is left over
  • Seed which can mean to plant seeds and also to remove seeds

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