Vocabulary in Context




Taiwanese college/university freshman students usually confront frustration by the English texts they are assigned to study or read. One factor that causes the frustration is a bad habit they use to deal with the overwhelming vocabulary in the texts. Students tend to stop for every new word when they read. They are busy looking up new words in the dictionary. However, after writing down the Chinese meanings of the new words, students are already worn out. It is unlikely that they have the slightest idea of what the text is really about. One more drawback is that students usually fail in catching up with the reading/studying schedule. Still another flaw of this habit is that students fail to know how the new word is exactly used. They use the new word in terms of Chinese definition to make sentences. Therefore, they make a sentence like "Airplanes open faster than trains."

One way to help improve the situation is to learn how to look for the context definitions of new words. Four types of context clues can help:

Synonym or Restatement Clues

A synonym is an expression (a word or phrase) that means the same as the new word that you need to know. Synonym clues include expressions such as or, and, that is, that means, i.e., and in other words,orhelpful punctuation such as comma, dash, a set of parentheses, or colon. In addition, sometimes the writer does not use any of the clues listed here but he/she uses a pronoun to refer back to the vocabulary. In such cases, we say that the writer is using a restatement clue. In the following sentences, the boldfaced parts in blue alert you to the synonyms of the italicized words

The sociology professor commented that the ideas in my paper were too 
  ambiguours,that is, vague or too general.

When evaluating your classmates' presentations, you should be more specific with 
   your commentary; in other words, you should give examples when you comment.

After you finish reading all the texts, you have to give an oral presentation, i.e., oral 

Many people are fighting obesity, or fatness, since obesity usually leads to coronary 

Your home should be a haven, a safe place where you can relax.

Ms. Chang is a radical feminista person who proposes women's rights and 

A synonym is an expressiona word or phrasethat means the same as the new word.

Logging industry has been accused of massacring, killing in great numbers of, rare 

I'm leaving for Jerusalem on a quest: a search for the truth.

She had the audacity to criticize her boss to his face. It was the boldness and daring 
   that made her different from the rest of us.

Antonym Clues

In contrast to synonym, an antonym is an expression that means the opposite of another word. Once you see clue words such as but,  although,  though,  while,  unless, however,  nevertheless,  in contrast,  on the other hand,  differently,  instead,   asopposed to,  except,andunlike, you can easily recognize the meaning of the new word. Study these examples:

George's rebuttal against his instructor was insolent; however, he quickly became 
 aware that it would be wise to adopt a more respectful tone.

As opposed to the spontaneity of your composition, mine is rather contrived, 
 obviously planned.

Instead of submitting a pragmatic plan, Daniel handed in a proposal that is not 
 practical at all.

Although opera sounds serious to many people, it is actually full of vivacity.

In contrast to Mary's joyfulness, John's despondency really worries his parents.

Unless we can hold on to tangible evidence, we cannot file a law suit against him.

My room is clean and neat. On the other hand, my brother's room is a scene of chaos.

Love is "quiet understanding and mature acceptance of imperfection," while 
 infatuation is a strong passion and desire "marked by feeling of insecurity" and doubt.


Pay attention to the part of speech of each clue. Remember that "however" and "on the other hand" are not conjunctions. They are adverbs. Therefore, do not use them to combine two independent clauses.


Example Clues

Sometimes a writer gives an example or examples in the context of a word. The example(s) may help when the word is new to you or when the word expresses a very sophisticated idea. Expressions like such as, for instance, for example, take   for example, or punctuation like colon or semi-colon are all example clues you have to pay attention to. Consider these examples:

After the game, the audience created havoc; e.g., throwing chairs, banging on doors, 
   and yelling at each other.

Many species went extinct for unknown reasons. For example, dinosaurs no longer 
   walk the earth now.

To make delicious Mexican food, you have to use various spices: jalapeno, black 
   pepper, hot pepper, and so on.

After the earthquake, victims desperately needed supplies such as water, food, 
   sleeping bags, tents, batteries, flashlights, and so on.

Cause/Effect Clues

You can also study meanings of words by examining causal relationship. Clues that point to the causal relationship are: because, since, therefore, consequently, in consequence, as a result, factor, and a/the reason for.  Study the following examples:

The death of the dinosaurs has relevance to us, since if we learn what caused their 
   extinction it may help prevent our own.

There are no conclusive answers to the questions because the mechanism behind the 
   extinction is still unknown.

The reason why we are still unable to crack the case is that there has been no new 
   evidence presented.

The structure was remodeled several times; therefore, we can no longer see their 
   original form.

The sloppy construction was one of the factors that caused exponential deaths in the 
 Sept. 21 earthquake.

After the catastrophe happened, the government was somewhat slow to reaction; as a 
 result, victims who lost their homes in the earthquake grew hostile against officials.

Situation or General Knowledge Clues

To find out the meaning of a word in context, sometimes you have to resort to your common sense. Try to recall your knowledge or past experiences and you can come to terms with the task.

Many people were buried alive in the earthquake when their homes collapsed.

In the earthquake, many victims were killed or injured and many children became 

One of the rehabilitation tasks after the earthquake is for the psychologists to see to 
   victims' mental health.

Helplessly witnessing his beloved wife losing her life in the collapsed home had left to 
   him a permanent trauma.

One of the greatest pathos in life is to lose all of the beloved family members in a 

Many volunteers devote their time and money to help victims retain a normal life.

Water is rudimentary to human beings for survival.