Using Context Clues

Learning Objective

  • Identify strategies for using context clues to define words

A context clue is a word or phrase in the same sentence or a nearby sentence that can help the reader decipher the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

Context clues consist of all the words and phrases that are near a word. Often, you can define words based on the other words around them. If you’re reading a lot of material, you don’t have time to look up individual words. Reading words in context helps ensure a high level of focus, whereas breaking your concentration to look up words is distracting.

What is Jabberwocky?

You may be familiar with the poem “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll, written in 1871. Take a look at it here. As you read, or listen to the audio version, consider: how do you know what it means?

Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


You can view the transcript for “Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll- Read by Benedict Cumberbatch” here (opens in new window).

Let’s we share the experience with Alice (of Alice in Wonderland fame) after she reads it:

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”

Even though Lewis Carroll invented many of the words of the poem, we still are able to get a clear sense of the action and adventure in it. There are enough clues around the words, and in the words themselves, for us to envision meaning.

Approaching any new set of vocabulary can be something like reading “Jabberwocky” for the first time. By using context clues, analyzing the structure of the word, and breaking out the trusty dictionary, you’ll soon be master of a whole new range of thoughts—and the words appropriate to express them.

Take a look at the following hotspot activity. You probably already know these three words, but pay attention to how they function in the passage. If you were to come across a much more difficult reading passage, you could use the same method to define unfamiliar words.

Learn by doing

Context clues can be broken down into six different types, described below. This classification is only one method of thinking about context clues.

Type Explanation Example
Definition Clue A definition clue is a word or phrase that defines the unfamiliar word. Look for words or phrases that introduce a definition for the unfamiliar word, such as is defined as, means, and refers to. Also, look for punctuation marks that set off a definition, such as quotation marks, parentheses, and brackets. Telepathy is defined as the ability to communicate information to another person without the use of any known senses or communication devices.
Synonym Clue A synonym clue is a word or phrase that has a similar meaning to the unfamiliar word. Look for words or phrases that introduce a synonym, such as in other words, or, that is to say, and also known as. Also, look for punctuation marks that set off a synonym, such as commas, parentheses, dashes, and brackets. The cheerleader appeared vapid— spiritless—as he delivered his pitiful performance in front of the stands.
Contrast/Antonym Clue A contrast clue is a word or phrase that has the opposite meaning of the unfamiliar word. In other words, it’s an antonym. Look for words or phrases that introduce a contrast, such as however, but, instead of, on the other hand, on the contrary, whereas, in contrast, unlike, although, and even though. Lions are solitary creatures that prefer to hunt alone, but hyenas are gregarious creatures that hunt in packs.
Example Clue An example clue is a word or phrase that provides an example to illustrate the unfamiliar word. Look for words or phrases that introduce examples, such as for example, for instance, to illustrate, like, and such as. The manager disliked obsequious behavior, such as fawning and kowtowing.
Experience Clue An experience clue draws upon personal experience or background knowledge to help you infer the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Look for a word, phrase, or sentence that includes a familiar experience or information you already know. Television audiences are familiar with disingenuous ads that make grand promises.
Adjacent Clue An adjacent clue is a word or phrase in a nearby sentence that explains the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Nanotechnology is becoming more widespread in society. As computer chips continue to shrink, manufacturers are placing them in everything from clothing, to building materials, to even the human body.

Let’s look at a few more examples:

  1. Definition Clue
    • The author directly defines the new word within the sentence. This strategy is commonly used in textbook material.
    • e.g. “When people contravene – break or violate – a law in Canada, they can expect to face legal consequences.”
    • Explanation: “Break or violate” is the definition of the word “contravene”.
  2. Synonym Clue
    • The author uses a word or phrase with a similar meaning to suggest the meaning of the new word.
    • e.g. “Following his death by accidental drug overdose, actor Heath Ledger posthumously received an Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight.”
    • Explanation: “Following his death” has a similar meaning to the word “posthumously.”
  3. Antonym Clue
    • The author uses a word or phrase with an opposite meaning to suggest the meaning of the new word.
    • e.g. “I really don’t appreciate your duplicity. I expect you to give me an honest response from now on.”
    • Explanation: “Honest response” has the opposite meaning of “duplicity” since the speaker expects a different behavior from the other person from that point on.
  4. Example Clue
    • The author provides examples or illustrations of the new word to suggest its meaning.
    • e.g. “Bats, owls, raccoons, and crickets are chiefly nocturnal creatures.”
    • Explanation: “Bats, owls, raccoons, and crickets” are examples of “nocturnal creatures” (creatures of the night).
  5. Experience or General Inference Clue
    • The author provides enough information in a sentence that the word’s meaning can be inferred.
    • e.g. “It would be an egregious mistake to wear a dirty t-shirt and shabby blue jeans to a funeral.”
    • Explanation: Although “egregious” is not specifically defined, most people would infer that it is inappropriate or offensive to wear worn-out clothing at a funeral.

Try It

link to Learning

For additional practice using context clues to understand new vocabulary, try these activities from Lethbridge College.

Glossary

context clue: a word or phrase surrounding an unfamiliar word that can help the reader decipher its meaning

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