Last week, we considered how to learn words from experience – direct and indirect. This week, we shall continue by examining how to build vocabulary through reading widely. When you encounter a difficult and unfamiliar word, try to determine the meaning on your own before leaving your reading to ask someone else or to look in a dictionary. In other words, you can make an educated guess about the meaning of the word based on the way it is used and on the words and ideas that surround it. Doing this amounts to learning through context.
I begin by showing how context clues can enable you learn words. This is important because the process of using context is a reflection of the way in which humans learn language from their earliest years. Thus, children hear words used over and over in different situations and so come to understand many words long before they are capable of asking questions about the meanings.
When you need to be sure of the meaning of a word before reading on, there are several kinds of clues to meaning that you may be able to pick up from the surrounding material. One among such clues is the author’s explanation. Sometimes an author will simply tell the reader what an unusual word means by adding an appositive phrase or a parenthetical explanation:
Ganiu Gbenga carried out his prizewinning experiment on planaria, soft-bodied, flattened worms, such as tapeworms, which have the power to regenerate much of their bodies.
Do you notice how the author explains the word ‘planaria’ with the words that follow it? Yes, and such explanations can occur in sentences preceding or following the sentence in which the unfamiliar word occurs:
With the coming of December, there was only a month of training left for the Peace Corps volunteers. The fear that hung over all their heads, however, was that of deselection. It was a mild-enough sounding word, but what it meant was that, after all that work, after all those hopes and fears and plans, the corps – staff, teachers, directors, or whoever – decided a volunteer wasn’t quite right for the work. And home that person went.
In the above paragraph, see how the word ‘deselection’ was explained. Pay attention to such contextual clues that help you understand the meanings of words in writings.
Note also that examples given can serve as clues to meaning. Often, when there is no direct explanation of an unfamiliar word, one or more examples in the piece of writing can guide the reader to a better understanding. See if you can spot the use of examples in the following sentence to promote meaning:
Ganiu Gbenga was the very model of the taciturn Yankee. If he ever opened his mouth, it was to say “Yep”, “Nope”, or “Maybe” – and little else.
In the sentence above, do you realise that there is no direct explanation for the italicized word, yet the subsequent description is of a woman who seldom speaks except when necessary. Taciturn, you can conclude, means “speaking very little; close-mouthed”.
Again, through contrast context meaning can be deduced. Sometimes an unfamiliar word takes on meaning when seen in contrast with a more familiar word or situation. The following sentence illustrates this:
Unlike his brother Tope, who loves being in the thick of things and having a great deal of contact with people, Taiwo is an introvert.
In this example, the fact that the two brothers are quite different is signalled by the preposition unlike. Since Tope enjoys people and action, Taiwo, by contrast, must not enjoy these things. Introvert, therefore, suggests someone who is shy and not outgoing.
Check out this other example:
The advertisements had promised an exciting new show with fresh, original lyrics and tunes, but the songs in fact were as hackneyed as the rest of the production.
Here, the fact that the songs did not live up to their promise of being fresh and original is signalled by but. The opposite of fresh and original is “dull; commonplace; overused”, and this, in fact, is the meaning of hackneyed.
This makes it easier to understand the point, doesn’t it?
We are also able to get context meaning through comparison. Sometimes, an unfamiliar word can be seen to be similar to another word or words that are familiar. See the following:
The genealogist was as persistent in tracing the births, deaths, and marriages within our family as a detective reconstructing the actions of a suspect.
Notice that in this example the genealogist is compared to a detective, in fact – one who searches out and records details of family history.
Now let’s try out an exercise, shall we?
Use the various kinds of context clues in each sentence to determine the meaning of the italicised word. Then write the letter of the choice that correctly completes the statement following each item.
Example: He exerted all his strength and skill in his last high jump attempt, and this consummate effort won him a new track record.
Consummate means (a) small; (b) early; (c) cooperative; (d) complete; perfect
Attempt the following:
1. Because the witness had contradicted himself several times, the jury listened to the rest of his testimony with scepticism.
Scepticism means (a) exhaustion; (b) suspicion; (c) impatience; (d) approval.
2. Before unions formed to demand better wages, fewer hours, and safer standards, few employers did anything to ameliorate the terrible working conditions in their factories.
Ameliorate means (a) improve; (b) organise; (c) write about; (d) pay for.
3. When Franklin got confused and ruined the joke he was telling, he was greeted with jeers, derisive laughter, and mocking comments from his friends.
Derisive means (a) delighted; (b) scornful; (c) understanding; (d) shame-faced.
4. Why do you dissemble how much their behaviour has hurt your feelings instead of telling them straightforwardly just what bothers you?
Dissemble means (a) remain frightened of; (b) overestimate the importance of; (c) revenge oneself on; (d) keep hidden.
5. Mary Anne has lost weight, but she is still not as svelte as she would like to be to wear the new form-fitting styles.
Svelte means (a) heavy; (b) glamourous; (c) happy; (d) slender.