Defining Vocabulary in Context Help (page 3)
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.
- Before they become household names, the waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and teachers are
- famous and notorious.
- unknown and undistinguished.
- 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.
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.
- Another reason people participate in reality TV shows is
- for money.
- because they feel lucky.
- 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:
- Proliferate is a word associated with
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.
- Proliferate in this passage means
- decrease, shrink.
- underestimate, play down.
- increase, spread at a rapid rate.
- 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.
- In the passage, adversely most nearly means
- mildly, slightly.
- kindly, gently.
- negatively, unfavorably.
- 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.)
Defining Vocabulary in Context Practice and Answers
Read the following passages and determine the meaning of the words from their context.
- Although social work is not a particularly lucrative career, I wouldn't do anything else. Knowing I'm helping others is far more important to me than money.
- Lucrative means.
- highly profitable.
- highly rewarding.
- highly exciting.
- Overt means.
- embarrassing, awkward.
- subtle, suggestive.
- obvious, not hidden.
- Ravenous means
- like a raven, birdlike.
- extremely hungry, greedy for food.
- exhausted, ready for bed.
When you are in an interview, try not to show any overt signs that you are nervous. Don't shift in your chair, shake, or stutter.
By the time our staff meeting ended at 8:00, I was ravenous. I had skipped lunch and hadn't eaten since breakfast.
- a. The writer says money is not important to him. If money is not an issue, it is okay that social work is not highly profitable, that it doesn't earn a lot of money.
- c. Shifting, shaking, and stuttering are all obvious, not hidden signs of nervousness. They are not subtle or suggestive (choice b); and though they may make the interviewee feel embarrassed or awkward (choice a), the signs themselves are not embarrassing or awkward.
- b. Because the writer hadn't eaten since breakfast, she is extremely hungry, greedy for food. She may also be exhausted (choice c), but the context tells us that this word has something to do with eating.
The ability to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words from their context is an essential skill for reading comprehension. Sometimes, there will be unfamiliar words whose meaning you can't determine without a dictionary. But more often than not, a careful look at the context will give you enough clues to meaning.
TIP: The general tone or theme of the text can help you figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Titles can also provide clues about the tone of a story and the type of vocabulary words that are likely to be found in the text. What overall tone does each of the following titles convey?
- "Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Paradise Lost by John Milton
- "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
More Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Reading Comprehension Strategies Practice Test.
Test your knowledge at Reading Comprehension Final Practice Test.
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