Vocabulary in Context

Context Clues and Approximate Definition

While a dictionary can give you the most accurate meaning of a word, taking time to look up words is distracting and will cause you to lose track of what the passage meant.  Instead, using the context clues to understand the word keeps your mind on the topic and helps you determine an approximate definition.

When Russia was under the control of Josef Stalin, dissidents were routinely shot or imprisoned in hospitals for the mentally ill.  Stalin did not allow anyone to express disagreement or discontent with his policies.

dissidents ≈ people who disagree


Four Common Context Clues

Example The author includes the behavior, attitude, or event associated with the word.

The discussion was becoming increasingly belligerent; no matter what was said, someone in the group would challenge it in an angry voice.

Contrast The author tells you what the word does not mean.

At first the smell was almost flowerlike, but in a matter of minutes it became harsh and acrid.

Restatement The author gives you a synonym or word close in meaning.

His behavior was eccentric; but in New York, it wasn’t all that unusual for people to be odd.  

NOTE: In textbooks, the authors are more likely to give you an exact definition enclosed by commas, parentheses, or dashes.

Cognitionthinking or knowing — has been the subject of numerous studies.

General Knowledge The passage describes an experience or event with which you are likely familiar.  If you are from another country, these will be the hardest to use. Learning more about American culture will help.

Football and basketball coaches are frequently known for their volatile tempers.



Underline the clues, then try writing an approximate definition


  1. According to the myth, the hero Achilles was vulnerable in just one area of his body.  He could be killed only if he was wounded in the heel.

Vulnerable means



  1. The candidate had expected to win but instead she was trounced by her opponent, who won by a landslide.

Trounced means



  1. Before allowing someone to deliver a personal opinion on the air, most television news programs issue a disclaimer that denies all responsibility for the views expressed.

Disclaimer means



  1. The Chinese novelist Ha Jin is an amazingly perceptive writer, who understands human behavior in a way that few novelists can.

Perceptive means



  1. In his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, novelist John Steinbeck movingly describes the plight of migrant farm workers in California forced to work under brutal and dehumanizing conditions.

Plight means



  1. Inventors don’t necessarily care if their inventions are lucrative; often they just have an idea they are desperate to make reality, and money doesn’t matter.

Lucrative means



  1. Looking filthy and disreputable after being lost for a month in the woods, the children were finally discovered by a team of hunting dogs.

Disreputable means



  1. The parents realized that Jonah was a child prodigy when his teacher told them that the eight-year-old was reading books written for high school students.

Prodigy means



  1. The soldier was a member of an elite group of special forces who had been highly trained just for such international emergencies.

Elite means




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