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Getting Smarter through Language

Intermediate Reading Course. Section 1: The Basics

Using the General Sense, Experience, and Inference as Context Clues

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Sometimes It Just Makes Sense…

Simply put, sometimes you run into an unknown word and you have a good idea what it means because it just makes sense in that context. If the sentence or paragraph makes sense even though you may have the exact meaning of a word, you can just keep reading.


Video Activity

Watch Using general sense and inference as context clues and take good study notes.

Note. The video supports the content on this page. You can study the page and watch the video in any order.

You can often understand a word you have never heard before because its meaning fits the general sense of what you are reading. You can guess the meaning of a new word based on your experience with or prior knowledge about the topic, or you can infer what it possibly means.

Let’s examine some examples.

General sense as a context clue

Example 1

Researchers have taken only a cursory look at the data, so they cannot make draw any conclusion yet. It will probably take months for them to make sense of all the data.

From the general sense, you know researchers cannot make sense of the information because they “took only a cursory look” at it. It probably means you took a look, but not very deeply. The second sentence confirms it. The dictionary definition of “cursory” is “done rapidly and often superficially.”

Example 2

When you are angry, you cannot think clearly. To avoid making rash decisions, you should wait until you have gained some emotional distance from the situation.

From the general sense, you get the idea that a rash decision is one that you make too quickly and without thinking about the result.

Experience (or prior knowledge) as a context clue

Example 3

Temperatures in the desert can change from sweltering during the day to freezing night.

If you have ever been to the desert or know about the desert, you know that it gets oppressively hot, or sweltering, there when the sun is up.

Example 4

The poor man had been lost in the forest for three weeks. He survived by eating insects and whatever berries he could find. He was in such an emaciated condition it took his own son a few seconds to recognize him.

As you know, if you only eat insects and berries for three weeks, you end up looking very thin and unhealthy, that is, emaciated.

Inferring the meaning of an unknown word

Example 5

In an unusual competition this weekend, cheesemongers from around the country will compete for a $10,000 prize. To win, they must not only be experts in the cheeses they sell but also identify dozens of cheeses by smell alone. In addition to the money prize, the winner’s cheese store will be feature in next month’s issue of the Cheese Magazine.

From the description of this unusual competition, you can infer that these “cheesemongers” are people who deal in cheese.

Example 6

Except for exporting small amounts of coconuts and tropical fruits, the small island nation was fairly isolated from the rest of the world for much of its history. In the last two decades, however, it has become a mercantile nation. It has made a fortune trading natural resources, exploring ecotourism, and consumer goods such as clothing, car parts, and electronics.

It is common in history for countries’ economies to change from agricultural to “mercantile,” which is an adjective related to merchants or trade. The second sentence illustrates the many products this nation now sells.

The More You Read, The Easier It Gets

These clues are closely related because you often understand the general sense based on your life experiences and, in turn, make inferences based on them. In fact, lacking experience with the culture is one of the reasons it can be difficult for English-language learners to understand what they read.

For example, if you are reading a something that shows the photo below, you can infer that it and the words used in it refer to how Christmas. Of course, if you are not familiar with how Americans celebrate Christmas, you may not be able to infer the that information.

When writers make cultural references in their writing, they assume that their readers will understand what they mean because they share common experiences.

This is why you should read often and in different areas. You must learn not only the English language in general but also the culture. The more you understand cultural references, the easier it is to understand and make inferences when you read.

Up Next: Words with Multiple Meanings

Go to the next lesson to learn about words with multiple meanings and how to deal with them while reading.