Sometimes, when you’re reading, and you come across a word that you don’t know, you can use context clues to make an educated guess as to what the word means.

Now, when you’re looking at the word you don’t know, you don’t want to just look right before and after the word.

The next lesson: Denotative and Connotative Meanings, both lessons are included in Practice Tests.

The following transcript is provided for your convenience.

You usually want to look at the sentence before, and the sentence after, and sometimes, you even have to look at the whole paragraph to get an idea of what that unfamiliar word means.

Now, there are some clues that we can look at to help determine what the word means. One thing you can look at is a description. Sometimes, the sentence, or a sentence following or before the unfamiliar word, will give you a description.

For instance:

The green-feathered macaw.”

Well, you may not know the word “macaw“, but by seeing “green-feathered“, you can infer that it is some kind of a bird with green feathers.

Another clue you could look at are synonyms. If you hear:

The soft and supple leather.”

Well, since you have “soft” here, and then “supple“, both describing “leather“, you can figure out that supple probably has something to do with being soft. And in reality, it means it’s easily moldable, and it is somewhat soft to be able to do that.

We’ll go ahead and note that this one was our bird.

Now, another clue you can look for are antonyms.

Angie is sweet; she doesn’t have a malevolent bone in her body.”

Well, you may not know what “malevolent” means, but you probably know what “sweet” means. And if she isn’t malevolent, and she is sweet, then you can figure out malevolent is something bad, something negative, the opposite of sweet. And, in reality, malevolent means evil.

Another clue you can look for are definitions. Sometimes, the sentence before, after, or part of the same sentence your word is in will just give you the definition of the word.

For instance:

The echidna, an egg-laying mammal native to Australia…

And then, they might tell you some interesting fact about the echidna. Well, in commas, right after echidna, is the definition of an echidna. An egg-laying mammal native to Australia. So, you know what it is right there.

The last clue you can look for is tone. It is the rest of this paragraph. Positive, negative, happy, scared. If you have a paragraph that’s all one tone, then the word probably has something to do with that. If it’s a scary tone, then this may be a word that has to do with something scary. If it’s positive, it may be a happy kind of word. So, you can always take that into consideration whenever you are taking your educated guess.

So, once you’ve looked at clues, and you’ve tried to figure out looking before and after the sentence your word is in, looking at the whole paragraph, seeing if you could find a description, a synonym, an antonym, a definition, or figure out the tone surrounding that unfamiliar word, you want to take a guess as to what the word means. And then, you want to reread the sentence to see if it makes sense to you, you can ask yourself “Does it makes sense?”

So, if we were to insert “bird” here:

The green-feathered bird.”

Well, something that has feathers, and we have bird after it, that makes sense. So that one would work.

The soft and supple leather.”

So, if we know it means something all soft, maybe moldable, we could say:

The soft and moldable leather.”

The soft and flexible leather.”

Any kind of word like tha you put in that was similar to “soft” would work. It would make sense in your sentence.

Okay, we were thinking “evil” here. Something the opposite of “sweet”.

Angie is sweet; she doesn’t have an evil bone in her body.”

That makes sense. She is sweet, she doesn’t have an evil bone.

Now, the echidna sentence is a little different. If they plug in a definition for you, then it’s a little harder to check, you would just say, “an egg-laying mammal native to Australia“, and then maybe tell the sentence after that point, because the definition’s already there for you. There’s not really a synonym for echidna or anything else you could’ve come up with for what that one meant.

And, once you’ve checked to make sure they all make sense, then you have a pretty good idea of what that word means, and you can see how using these context clues of looking for a description,  a synonym, an antonym, a definition, or the tone of a paragraph can help you figure out that pesky, unfamiliar word.

Practice tests help you remember. Take this mini-test to solidify your memory.
Mini-test: Context 

Using the context clues, choose the best definition for the underlined word.

1. The homes on the north side of the tracks were poor and shabby, but those on the south side were obviously affluent.
2. It is a fact that a large number of small businesses fail because the owner hasn’t enough capital to tide him over slack periods and emergencies that is, it takes a certain amount of working money to keep a business going.


The next lesson: Denotative and Connotative Meanings, both lessons are included in Practice Tests.