Recognizing Types of Context Clues

The basic strategy for using context clues is easy. When you come to an unfamiliar word—one you need to know to understand the content—stop and reread the sentence containing the word. If there are no clues in that sentence, search for hints in the sentences before and after the word. When you locate a context clue, substitute your guess for the word's meaning in place of the clue to see if it makes sense. If it does, you can continue reading. If not, you may need to use another resource like a glossary or dictionary.

Good writers are considerate of you, the reader. They don’t want you to puzzle over the meaning of a word, get frustrated, or stop to use a dictionary. That’s why they include context clues for challenging words. These hints come in various forms, but all are designed to give you some sense of the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Let’s look at some types of context clues.

Definition as a Context Clue

One of the most helpful context clues is the definition. Sometimes writers assume that few readers know a certain word, so they define it outright in the context. In this passage from Teacher Man, writer Frank McCourt takes for granted that his American audience will not have heard of the Irish storyteller called the “seanachie,” so he explains what it means.

Then I realize this is what my father did when he told us stories by the fire. He told us about men called seanachies who traveled the country telling the hundreds of stories they carried in their heads.

Example as a Context Clue

Authors also provide hints about an unknown word by giving an example. The word ”miscreant” may be unfamiliar to you, but Bill Bryson uses it in this passage from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid with the example of cattle rustlers. You know that cattle rustlers in the Wild West stole livestock, so you can guess that miscreants are not law-abiding citizens. That negative association is all you need to know to keep reading.

Sky was a rancher by trade, but spent most of his time cruising the Arizona skies in his beloved Cessna, The Songbird, spotting cattle rustlers and other earthbound miscreants.

Synonym as a Context Clue

Another type of context clue is the synonym. The writer provides a word with the same or nearly the same meaning as the word in question. Read this passage from James Thurber’s fable “The Seal Who Became Famous.” If you are unclear about the word ”monotony,” you can confirm your understanding with the synonym “uniformity” that follows.

A seal who lay basking on a large, smooth rock said to himself: all I ever do is swim. None of the other seals can swim any better than I can, he reflected, but, on the other hand, they can all swim just as well. The more he pondered the monotony and uniformity of his life, the more depressed he became. That night he swam away and joined the circus.

Antonym as a Context Clue

Authors may give us a context clue as an antonym, a word that means the opposite of the unfamiliar word. Antonym clues may contrast perfectly, like “good” and “bad” or “up” and “down.” More often the clue will offer an informative contrast rather than being completely opposite. In this example from Marley and Me, John Grogan explains how he acted when his wife decided to take a trip at the same time their new puppy was arriving. He felt one way but responded in another. If you don’t know what “nonchalant” means, you can figure it out from its antonym “overjoyed.“

I tried to sound nonchalant, but secretly I was overjoyed at the prospect of having the new puppy all to myself for a few days of uninterrupted male bonding.

General Context Clues

Sometimes the writer provides general clues around the unknown word. Though you get a sense of the word’s meaning, it’s more difficult to single out any one clue that tipped you off. In another passage from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson forces his readers to think about the word “anachronistic.“

Roy Rogers, my first true hero, was in many ways the most bewildering of all. For one thing, he was strangely anachronistic. He lived in a western town, Mineral City, that seemed comfortably bedded in the nineteenth century. It had wooden sidewalks and hitching posts, the houses used oil lamps, everyone rode horses and carried six-shooters, the marshal dressed like a cowboy and wore a badge—but when people ordered coffee in Dale’s café it was brought to them in a glass pot off an electric hob. From time to time, modern policeman or FBI men would turn up in cars or even light airplanes looking for fugitive Communists. . . .

As a kid, Bryson noticed that while the story was set in the present day, there were many elements from the past in this fictional town. If Roy Rogers lived in the nineteenth-century West, he should drink coffee brewed over a campfire or a wood-burning stove. These chronological mistakes, or “anachronisms,” unsettled the observant young television viewer.