Before Picking up a Dictionary to Define an Unknown Word, Try to Get the Gist of Its Meaning

Before Picking up a Dictionary to Define an Unknown Word, Try to Get the Gist of Its Meaning

Vocabulary in Context

Before picking up a dictionary to define an unknown word, try to get the gist of its meaning by thinking about the surrounding words and sentences. Authors often provide clues to the meaning of unfamiliar words in the context of their writing. Here are some clues to understanding vocabulary in context.


  1. Example Clue: A specific example is given which acts a clue to meaning. The example makes the meaning clear. Notice that the examples may be introduced with signal words and phrases as, “such as, including, for example…”

Toxic materials such as arsenic, asbestos, pesticides, and lead can cause permanent health damage.

Definition of toxic:poisonous

Orthopterans, including crickets, grasshoppers and cockroaches thrive in damp conditions.

Definition of orthopterans:bugs that dwell in moist environments


  1. Antonym Clue: The clue to meaning is provided through the use of contrast. An antonym is often signaled by words and phrases that show opposites such as, “although, but, however, nevertheless, while, despite, rather…”

Although some women are loquacious, others hardly talk at all.

Definition of loquacious:talkative

Nocturnal rather than daytime insects are attracted to light.

Definition of nocturnal:appear at night


  1. Synonym Clue: When the author restates the same meaning of a word in the same sentence. The clue is another word for…In such cases the synonym may be set off by punctuation such as a comma, dash, or parentheses; and they may be introduced by “or” and “that is”.

My opponent’s argument is fallacious, misleading – plain wrong.

Definition of fallacious:untrue

A perambulator, or baby carriage, is very useful to mothers of young children.

Definition of perambulator:baby carriage


  1. Definition Clue: The meaning of the word is defined in the sentence. This is common in content area textbooks like psychology, history, biology and sociology. Notice that the signal words and phrases are verbs.

An affable person is pleasant and easy to talk to.

Horology is defined as the science of measuring time.

A tropism in moths is a tendency to fly toward the light.

Metabolism refers to the rate at which the body’s cells manufacture energy from food or produce new cells.


  1. Cause and Effect Clues: The meaning of the word is provided through the use of cause and effect relationships. Search for signal words and phrases such as, “one reason for, the effects are, are causes of, so, because of…”

The amount of traffic at Times Square tripled last year, so police crossing guards were placed around the area to avert an accident.

Definition of avert: to ward off or prevent

The threat of an incremental rise in the number of illegal weapons is one reason for talks on gun-control laws.

Definition of incremental: continuous


  1. Series Clues: The meaning of the word appears as part of the items in a series.

The campers spotted sparrows, chickadees, cardinals and indigo buntings on the camping trip.

Definition of indigo buntings: blue-colored bird, small size


  1. Situation Clue: The meaning of the word is determined according to the situation in which it appears. Authors provide contextual clues to connotative and denotative meanings of words.

The sick child felt on fire.

The fire of love fills Romeo’s body

A fire destroyed the building.


  1. Comparison and Contrast Clues: The meaning of the word is determined through use of comparison and/or contrast. Authors use signal words and phrases like, “in contrast to, despite, rather than, although, similar to, alike, likeness…”

The boxer feigned a punch with his left, rather than actually jabbing.

Definition of feigned: pretend, faked

She usually is a laggard; however, today she was energetic and worked hard

Definition of laggard: lazy


  1. General Sense Clues: Sometimes it takes a bit more analysis to uncover the meaning of an unknown word. If that is the case, you must draw conclusions based on the surrounding information. The meaning may be explained by the surrounding words and sentences, Ask questions about the passage which will allow you to guess at a fairly accurate meaning. Use your logic.

The patient is so somnolent that he requires medication to help stay awake

for more than a short time.

ASK: what king of patient would require medication to stay awake longer?

Definition of somnolent: tired, sleepy

A former employee, irate over having been fired, broke into the plant and deliberately wrecked several machines.

ASK: What kind of employee would do this? What was his state of mind?Definition of irate: angry or enraged