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Context Clues: By Renee Perkins

Deciphering Unfamiliar Words

Susan Perkins

on 12 September 2013

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Transcript of Context Clues: By Renee Perkins

How do you decipher unfamiliar words? By: Renee Perkins
Recognizing Context Clues
Context clues are the words, phrases, and sentences around the word that is unfamiliar. Very often,you'll find enough information in the surrounding text to figure out the meaning of a new word.
Observe the following examples:
Example #1
Look for clues that suggest the meaning of pestilence in this excerpt from "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe
The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence
had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon
the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from
the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the
incidents of half an hour.
Example #2
Look for clues that suggest the
meaning of mendicant in this excerpt from "Dr. Heldegger's Experiment"
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant.
Example #3
Look for clues that suggest the
meaning of incumbent in this excerpt from
"An American Tragedy"
by Theodore Drelser
He could not force her to do anything. If she wanted to lie and pretend, he would have to pretend to believe her. And yet a great sadness settled down upon him. He turned, and she, being convinced that he felt that she was lying now, felt it incumbent upon herself to do something about it - to win him around to her again.
Kinds of
Context Clues
Writers usually provide clues that help you figure out the meanings of difficult words. Knowing types of context clues writers use will help you better understand what you read. It will also help you do better on the FCAT, ACT, and SAT
Learning the meaning of a word through its use in a sentence or paragraph is the most practical way to build vocabulary, since the use of a dictionary is not always an option when you encounter an unknown word. Effective readers must be aware that many words have several possible meanings. Only by being sensitive to the circumstances in which a word is used can you decide upon an appropriate definition to fit the context.

Context Clues
What are the clues?
The fact that it has devasted the country
That it is fatal and hideous
The description of the symptoms - pain, dizziness, and bleeding - are still more clues.
The final clue is the use of the word disease.
Clues: The fact that Mr. Medbourne had once been "prosperous" but had "lost all" are the clues in this passage that tell you mendicant has something to do with being poor. In fact, the word means "beggar."
From the context, you can see that this is a turning point in a relationship.
The man is convinced the woman is lying, and the woman wants to convince him otherwise.
She will have to do something or say something to change his mind.
You get the feeling from the context that she really must do something.
That's one of the meanings of incumbent - "imposed as a duty or an obligation."
You can understand the meaning of incumbent simply by replacing it with words tha fit the context, like " a duty or obligation."
Definitions or Synonyms
Writers often give a synonym or a definition of a difficult word. One clue that a synonym or definition will follow is a comma or a dash. Other clues might include such words as or, is called, that is, and in other words. These are often times referred to as signal words.
This kind of clue is often found in textbooks, especially science, history, and mathematics textbooks. Here is an example from "The Aztecs" by Michael E. Smith:
The Aztecs are long gone, yet we know quite a bit about them today. Our knowledge comes from two sources: ethnohistory, the study of written documents, and archaeology, the study of material objects or artifacts.
You will also find this kind of clue in fiction, but not as often as in textbooks. Here is an example from a novel:
But Wolf Larson seemed voluble, prone to speech, as I had never seen him before.
Concrete Examples
Writers sometimes give examples that illustrate and clarify a difficult concept. The example helps you determine the meaning of a new word. Writers use signal words - such as, including, for instance, to illustrate, are examples of , and for example - to alert you that an exampe will follow. Observe the following example from "Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology":
Antigens can be divided into two groups: foreign antigens and self antigens. Foreign antigens are introduced from outside the body. Components of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms are examples of foreign antigens that cause disease.
Contrast Clues
Sometimes authors will include the opposite meaning to clarify the meaning of a challenging word. The underlined phrases in this example from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt, hint at the opposite of elegance.
Williams was wearing gray slacks and a blue cotton shirt turned up at the sleeves. His heavy black shoes and thick rubber soles were oddly out of place in the elegance of Mercer House, but practical; Williams spent several hours a day on his feet restoring antique furniture in his basement workshop. His hands were raw and calloused, but they had been scrubbed clean of stains and grease.
If you were not sure of the meaning of elegance, the surrouning text gives you a hint of what it is NOT. Since "heavy black shoes and thick rubbber soles were oddly out of place," you can infer that elegance refers to tasteful, refined beauty. This meaning is further reinforced when you read about Williams's hands, "raw and calloused" - another detail that would have been "oddly out of plae" because they are the opposite of elegance.
Here is another example of a contrast clue. In this excerpt from The Sea Wolf, the two characters have been on a ship for a long time, and they are just coming onto land. Note how the underlined words are contrast clues for the word stable.
I sprang out, extending my hand to Maud. The next moment she was beside me. As my fingers released hers, she clutched for my arm hastilly. At the same moment I swayed, as about to fall to the sand This was the startling effect of the cessation of motion. We had been so long upon the moving, rocking sea that the stable land was a shock to us. We expected the beach to lift up this way and that, ...
Since the stable land is so surprising to the characters, you can determine that stable means "fixed, stationary, not moving," the opposite of being in motion.
Description Clues
Sometimes an author will use context clues that describe what a word means. In this example from "Deep in the Woods" by David Remnick, look for clues to the meaning of liaison.
In Vermont, Natalia was Solzhenitsyn's liaison with the world; she retains that function here, dealing with publishers, reporters, readers, harassers. I doubt if Aleksandr Isayevich [Solzhenitsyn] has picked up a ringing telephone in decades.
If you didn't know the meaning of the word liaison, you can figure out what it means based on what Natalia does. A liaison is a contact person, a go-between, someone who eases communication between two or more people.
Words or Phrases
that Modify
Modifiers - such as ajectives, adverbs, or phrases and clauses - often provide clues to the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Note how the underlined words in this example, from House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, elaborate on the meaning of the word remote.
It is a remote place, and divided from the rest of the world by a great forked range of mountains on the north and west; by wasteland on the south and east, a region of dunes and thorns and burning columns of air; and more than these by time and silence.
Based on the underlined part of the passage, you can infer that remote means "isolated, out of the way," or "distant."
Showing Relationships
Writers often provide context clues that begin with
conjunctions showing the relationships between words.
These context clues allow readers to link unfamiliar words to
familiar ones. Coordinating conjunctions include and, but, or,
nor, for, and yet. Common subordinating conjunctions include
since, because, even though, if, just as, when, whenever, until,
and although. In this example, from "Talent" by Annie Dillard,
note how the writer uses the subordinating conjunction to join
the meaning of the word discipline to the rest of the sentence.
People often ask me if I discipline myself to write, if I work a certain number of hours a day on a schedule.
Based on the clause that begins with if, you have strong clues suggesting that the meaning of discipline is "to impose." an orderly pattern of behavior upon, to exercise self-control."
Unstated or Implied Meanings
Many times you can figure out the meaning of
an unfamiliar word by drawing on your own experience of similar situations. In this example from "Ziateh the Goat" by Isaac Bashevis Singer,
look for clues to the meaning of the word chaos.
Through the window Aaron could catch a glimpse of the chaos outside. the wind carried before it whole drifts of snow. It was completely dark, and he did not know whether night had already come or whether it was the darkness of the storm.
If you have ever observed a storm, even if from the comfort of your home, you have some idea of what it would be like to be out in it. It would be wild and frightening. You might lose sight of familiar landmarks and be confused about where to go to be safe, and that's exactly what chaos means - "a state of utter confusion."
All the clues in this passage tell you that pestilence means "a contagious disease that becomes an epidemic."
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