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Defining Vocabulary in Context Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

Review: Finding Facts

Here's a quick review of what you learned in question 1. Reality TV has the ability to take ordinary people and make them famous.

  1. Another reason people participate in reality TV shows is
    1. for money.
    2. because they feel lucky.
    3. because they are bored.

A quick check of the facts in the paragraph will tell you the answer is choice a, for money.

What Does Proliferate Mean?

Look again at the sentence in the passage in which proliferate is used:

    Whatever their attraction, these shows are among the most popular on television, and every season, they proliferate like weeds in an untended garden.

Again, even if you have no idea what proliferate means, you can still tell what kind of word it is by the way it is used. You know, for example, that these shows proliferate like weeds in an untended garden. Therefore, you can answer this question:

  1. Proliferate is a word associated with
    1. growth.
    2. reduction.
    3. disappearance.

The answer, of course, is choice a, growth. How can you tell? Well, we all know that weeds have a tendency to grow wherever they can.

Now that you've established that proliferate relates to growth, you can determine a more specific meaning by looking for more clues in the sentence. The sentence doesn't only tell us that these shows proliferate like weeds. It also tells us that they proliferate like weeds in an untended garden. Just imagine a neglected garden, one that has been left to its own devices. Weeds will begin to grow in every nook and cranny of that garden. In fact, they'll quickly take over, to the detriment of the plants. The phrase "weeds in an untended garden" is quite descriptive, and as such, it serves as a wonderful clue. Based on the words and phrases surrounding it, an active reader should have no problem determining the meaning of the word proliferate.

  1. Proliferate in this passage means
    1. decrease, shrink.
    2. underestimate, play down.
    3. increase, spread at a rapid rate.
    4. fail, fall short.

The correct answer is choice c, "increase, spread at a rapid rate." It can't be choices a or d because these are things associated with reduction, not growth. And everyone knows that weeds in an untended garden will grow fast and aggressively. Choice b is not an appropriate answer because if you replace proliferate with underestimate or play down, it doesn't really make sense. In addition, you can tell that choice c is the right answer because the rest of the passage provides other clues. It tells you that reality TV shows are replacing other network programs, that they are popular, and that they are earning millions of dollars in advertising revenue. All these clues would indicate that reality TV shows are spreading and growing in number, not shrinking or declining. Hence, the meaning of proliferate must be c, "increase, spread at a rapid rate."

How Much Context Do You Need?

In the previous example, you would still be able to understand the main message of the passage even if you didn't know—or couldn't figure out—the meaning of obscure and proliferate. In some cases, however, your understanding of a passage depends on your understanding of a particular word or phrase. Can you understand the following sentence, for example, without knowing what adversely means?

    Reality TV shows will adversely affect traditional dramas and comedies.

What does adversely mean in this sentence? Is it something good or bad? As good a detective as you may be, there simply aren't enough clues in this sentence to tell you what this word means. But a passage with more information will give you what you need to determine meaning from context.

Reality TV shows will adversely affect traditional dramas and comedies. As reality TV increases in popularity, network executives will begin canceling more traditional dramas and comedies and replacing them with the latest in reality TV.

  1. In the passage, adversely most nearly means
    1. mildly, slightly.
    2. kindly, gently.
    3. negatively, unfavorably.
    4. immediately, swiftly.

The correct answer is choice c, "negatively, unfavorably." The passage provides clues that allow you to determine the meaning of adversely. It tells you that as reality TV becomes more popular, network executives will cancel more traditional dramas and comedies and replace them with reality TV programming. So the meaning of adversely is neither choice a, "mild or slight," nor choice b, "kindly or gently." And based on the passage, you can't really tell if these changes will be immediate or swift (choice d) because the sentence doesn't say anything about the exact time frame in which these changes will occur. Remember, good detectives don't make assumptions they can't support with facts —and there are no facts in this sentence to support the assumption that changes will occur immediately. Thus, choice c is the best answer.

You may also have noticed that adversely is very similar to adversary. If you know that an adversary is a hostile opponent or enemy, then you know that adversely cannot be something positive. Or, if you know the word adversity—hardship or misfortune—then you know that adversely must mean something negative or difficult. All these words share the same root—advers. Only the endings change.

TIP: If you are unfamiliar with a particular word, use context clues to try to figure out its meaning. Draw upon the important clues in the sentences that appear directly before and after the unfamiliar word or passage. Punctuation can help you decipher unfamiliar words:

  • Parentheses are often used to highlight or explain words or phrases and elaborate on the words that precede them.
  • An exclamation point appears in a sentence in which some kind of surprise, shock, or excitement is taking place.
  • Commas often set off non-restrictive elements that provide additional information and elaboration on a word. Example: I wanted to buy a digital camera with a zoom lens, which is very costly. (The phrase "which is very costly" provides added information that can be used to figure out the meaning of the words that come before the phrase.)
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