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Getting Smarter through Language

Intermediate Reading Course. Section 1: The Basics

Using Definitions and Examples as Context Clues

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Definitions as a Context Clue

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Sometimes writers know that their readers are unfamiliar with a term. They may also want readers to understand how a term is defined in that particular text. Especially in these situations, writers define or explain the term right there in the text.

As the reader, you should look for such definitions and explanation before reaching for a dictionary unnecessarily.

In fact, sometimes writers use a very specific meaning of a word or expression. Then you must understand the writer’s definition anyway, not the dictionary’s definition.

Definition or explanation context clues

Example 1

To make their work easier, the researchers at this university want to build a tropical vivarium, or a place that simulates tropical animals’ and plants’ natural environment

A tropical “vivarium" is explained between the commas.

Example 2

When visiting Brazil, you must try feijoada. You can find this delicious stew of beans, beef, and pork in five-star restaurants and casual restaurants all over the country.

”Feijoada” is explained in the second sentence.

Example 3

In his career, Professor Ecks has published dozens of papers on syntax (the study of word and sentence structures) and semantics (the study of how language communicates meaning).

The meaning of “syntax” and “semantics” are provided in parentheses in case the reader is unfamiliar with those terms.

Notice How Writers Explain or Define

In the above examples, note that you may find explanations or definitions of unfamiliar terms in different ways, for example, between commas, between parentheses, or in a new sentence.

If a term is very important for readers to understand the text, the writer may even devote one or more paragraphs to define it clearly.

Examples as Context Clues

Providing an example is another way writers make sure a word or concept is clear to their readers. As with definitions or explanations, you should use the example to know exactly how you should understand the term in the text.

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Examples as context clues

Example 1

Senator Crock is a known misogynist. Recently, he wrote that women are less intelligent and capable than men. Last week, he stated in an interview that he would never trust a female doctor to treat him, “even if I were in my deathbed," he said.

The last two sentences are examples of what a misogynist would say, thus clarifying the meaing of “misogynist.”

Example 2

Children exhibiting secure attachment are confident when they talk to people around them. If their parents leave, they do not feel insecure; rather, they play by themselves or get other adults around them to talk to or play with them as they know that their parents will return.

The entire paragraph gives examples of behaviors that indicate “secure attachment” so the readers what the term means in psychology.

Example 3

Although Kenny was very ill in the hospital, he still had a cheerful disposition. He always welcomed visitors with a broad smile and a warm “it’s so good to see you!”

The examples of Kenny’s good disposition during his illness clarify what “disposition” means in this context.

Definitions, Explanations, and Examples

Of course, writers can combine all of these clues. You may see a new word followed by a definition and an example. The writer is trying to be thorough because the understanding the concept is that important in the text.

Combining Definition and Example Context Clues

Verbs such as “see” (someone), “break” (something), and “give” (something to someone) are called transitive verbs as they can take an object. Intransitive verbs do not take an object, for example, “arrive,” “sit,” or “travel.”

In the above sentences, transitive and intransitive verbs are defined (verbs that take an object and do not take an object), and the examples clarify their definitions. There is certainly no need to look up “transitive” or “intransitive” in the dictionary.

What If the Definition or Example Is Not Enough?

Sometimes you may feel that the writer has not provided clear enough definitions or examples. Of course, you can always look those terms up. However, it is recommended you should do so after you have finished reading—unless you really cannot understand what you are reading. This way, you do not interrupt your reading and you can focus on understanding the content.

If you do look terms up, be aware that the writer’s definition may be different from the dictionary definition. To understand the text, you must go with the definition in the text.

Up Next: Using the General Sense, Experience, and Inference as Context Clues

Go to the next lesson to learn about other context clues.