Contextual Clues: Finding the Missing Pieces
“Can you turn the radio down, the ___ is up too far, I can’t hear myself think.” What word do you think was missing? Probably “sound” or “volume” right? Maybe you’ve been in a situation in which you were talking to someone, you miss a word or more, yet from the context you are able to discern what’s lacking.
Context comes from the Latin ‘con-’ together and ‘texere’ to weave. It’s defined as ‘the circumstance that forms the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.’ A clue is ‘a fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem,’ and comes from the word ‘clew,’ which is a ball of string (used to guide a person out of a labyrinth).
So, for our purposes, a context clue is a word or phrase in a sentence that allows you to find the meaning of an unknown word. This is usually achieved through use of several different semantic roles, such as: Antonyms, synonyms, stated examples, contrasts, restatements, and definitions. Another example: “I was not exactly enamored of the travel plans my agent made for me; my lack of enthusiasm was triggered by the eight-hour layover between flights.” You can determine the meaning of ‘enamored’ by concluding that it must be the opposite of a ‘lack of enthusiasm.’
A child reading a book might come across an unfamiliar word and use context clues to find the meaning, such as pictures or the surrounding sentences; what is remarkable about this is the fact that this can act as an aid to a child’s ability to learn the language. Anne Fernald, a psychology professor at Stanford University said “If I say to you, ‘The doggie is on the sofa,’ and you know what a dog is, you don’t have to yet know what a sofa is, you use the familiar word to figure out the meaning of the new word. In a sense, you pick up the sofa in your vocabulary for free.”
Of course, being young of age is not a prerequisite for being able to use these context clues to your advantage; anybody of any age can use them to decipher words and phrases that are somewhat murky; whether it be in your native tongue or a language you so happen to be learning, the ability to ‘assume’ the meaning of a word allows you to learn without a book or proper explanation. Now a word of caution, I highlighted the word ‘assume’ for a reason: whenever you do this you are using techniques to find the meaning yet there is always the possibility that there was a mistake or misinterpretation, “Once my dog exuviated all over my couch, it was a big mess afterward, I needed to clean it all off!” Be careful not to judge too quickly.
Can you think of any instances where you’ve been able to determine the meaning of a word by it’s surrounds? Can you think of any other instances where the word had a different meaning?