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Defining Vocabulary in Context Help

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

Introduction to Defining Vocabulary in Context

An active reader looks up unfamiliar words. But what if you don't have a dictionary? In a testing situation (or, for that matter, if you're reading on the bus), you almost certainly won't be able to look up words you don't know. Instead, you can use the context to help you determine the meaning.

Sometimes in your reading, you come across words or phrases that are unfamiliar to you. You might be lucky and have a dictionary handy to look up that word or phrase, but what if you don't? How can you understand what you're reading if you don't know what all of the words mean? The answer is that you can use the rest of the passage, the context, to help you understand the new words.

Finding Meaning from Context

The following paragraph is about one of our nation's favorite pastimes, reality TV. Read it carefully, marking it up as you go—but do not look up any unfamiliar words or phrases in a dictionary.

    Most reality TV shows center on two common motivators: fame and money. The shows transform waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and teachers, to name a few, from obscure figures to household names. A lucky few successfully parlay their 15 minutes of fame into celebrity. Even if you are not interested in fame, you can probably understand the desire for lots of money. Watching people eat large insects, reveal their innermost thoughts to millions of viewers, and allow themselves to be filmed 24 hours a day for a huge financial reward makes for interesting entertainment. Whatever their attraction, these shows are among the most popular on television, and every season, they proliferate like weeds in an untended garden. The networks are quickly replacing more traditional dramas and comedies with reality TV programs, which earn millions in advertising revenue. Whether you love it or hate it, one thing is for sure—reality TV is here to stay!

As you read, you may have circled some words that are unfamiliar. Did you circle obscure and proliferate? If so, don't look them up in a dictionary yet. If you do a little detective work, you can determine their definitions by looking carefully at how they are used in the paragraph.

What Does Obscure Mean?

Start with obscure. How is this word used?

    The shows transform waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and teachers, to name a few, from obscure figures to household names.

Even if you have no idea what obscure means, you can still learn about the word by how it is used, by examining the words and ideas surrounding it. This is called determining word meaning through context. Like detectives looking for clues at a crime scene, we must look at the passage for clues that will help us define this word.

So, given the sentence we have here, what can we tell about obscure? Well, since the shows transform waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and teachers from one position(obscure figures), to another position (household names), that immediately tells us that an obscure figure and a household name are two different things.

Furthermore, we know from the sentence that the people in question are involved in typical, everyday jobs (waitresses, hairdressers, bankers, etc.) and that from this position, they are transformed into household names, which means they achieve some level of fame and notoriety. Now you can take a pretty good guess at the meaning of obscure.

  1. Before they become household names, the waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and teachers are
    1. famous and notorious.
    2. unknown and undistinguished.
    3. unique and distinctive.

The correct answer, of course, is choice b. It certainly can't be choice a, because we know that these people are not yet famous. The reality shows will make them famous, but until that happens, they remain obscure. Choice c doesn't really make sense because we know from the passage that these people are waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and teachers. Now, these are all very respectable jobs, but they are fairly common, so they wouldn't be described as unique or distinctive. Furthermore, we can tell that choice b is the correct answer because we can substitute the word obscure with the words unknown or undistinguished in the sentence and both would make sense.

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