Home   |   TOPIC LIST   |   About   |   Contact

Meaning from context

When you come across a word that you don’t know the meaning of, look at the sentence around it and see if it will help you work out the meaning of the word. Take this simple example:

Jenny is quite loquacious; she just won’t shut up!

What the heck does ‘loquacious’ mean? If you went out into the street and asked people if they knew what it meant, chances are a good fraction of them wouldn’t have a clue. However, you can use the rest of the sentence to help you work out the meaning.

Handy Hint - What type of word?

Before we go any further, it helps to work out what role the word has in the sentence: is it the subject or the object? Is it a noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, adverb, or some other type of word? To work this out, it sometimes helps to try substituting words that you do know instead of the word you don’t to see if they fit. What we’re looking for is whether the sentence is grammatically correct. It doesn’t have to make sense, it could come out as nonsense.

Try a verb:

Jenny is quite run, she just won’t shut up!

Hmmm ... doesn’t seem to work too well. Let’s try a noun:

Jenny is quite dog, she just won’t shut up!

Let’s try an adverb:

Jenny is quite quickly, she just won’t shut up!

Nope! Let’s keep going with different words. Next up we’ll try an adjective:

Jenny is quite pretty, she just won’t shut up!

Aha! This seems to make grammatical sense. Let’s try a few other adjectives just to make sure:

Jenny is quite clever, she just won’t shut up!

Jenny is quite red, she just won’t shut up!

Jenny is quite rough, she just won’t shut up!

Yep, they all seem grammatically correct, although they might not necessarily make sense. So we’ve established that the word ‘loquacious’ is probably an adjective. We’re getting somewhere.

Back to this context thing. Look at the second part of the sentence - the writer is complaining about how Jenny won’t ‘shut up’. This tells us that Jenny is talking a lot. Notice how this phrase follows on from the first part of the sentence. A good guess for the meaning of ‘loquacious’ would be that it has something to do with talking a lot, since that’s what the sentence seems to be about. So we could guess that:

loquacious = chatterbox

If we look up ‘loquacious’ in the dictionary, we get:

loquacious = very talkative

So we were right with our guess. Here’s another example:

The river meandered its way around the hills down to the ocean.

Let’s first work out what type of word this is by trying words we know instead.

A noun:

The river dog its way around the hills down to the ocean.

Doesn’t really make grammatical sense.

A verb:

The river flows its way around the hills down to the ocean.

‘Flows’ makes grammatical sense, so ‘meandered’ is probably a verb. The ‘ed’ at the end of the verb suggests it’s a past tense form of the verb. So, now to its meaning - let’s look at the rest of the sentence.

Whatever the river is doing, it’s doing it ‘around the hills’ and ‘down to the ocean’. The verb ‘flows’ or ‘flowed’ actually works quite well in this context. However, what about the ‘around’ part of the sentence? This suggests that the river has to change its course to avoid the hills on its way to the ocean. This would result in a curvy path to the ocean rather than a straight one. So a good guess at what ‘meandered’ means would be:

meandered = to flow in a curvy manner

Now let’s look it up in the dictionary:

meander = to move along a windy/curvy path