The meaning of a word can be inferred from its context.


When you are unfamiliar with a word, its meaning can be inferred from its context – the way it is used – in a passage.

Any given passage can contain vocabulary clues in context.


(1)  Synonym – Another word in a sentence might have a similar meaning.
• The curmudgeonly old man, who was always grouchy, scolded the young children.
• The meaning of curmudgeonly is presented as similar to grouchy.

(2)  Antonym – Another word in a sentence might have an opposite meaning.
• The curmudgeonly old man, who was never cheerful, scolded the young children.
• The meaning of curmudgeonly is presented as the opposite of cheerful.

(3)  Definition – The word might be directly defined.
• The curmudgeon, a person who is always a grouch, is no fun to be around.
• The meaning of curmudgeon is defined directly as a person who is always a grouch.

(4)  Substitution – Substituting for the word in question might hint at its meaning.
• The curmudgeonly old man scolded the children.
• The grouchy old man scolded the children.
• Substituting grouchy strongly hints at the meaning of curmudgeonly.


Description of a Desert

The most remarkable of deserts is the Sahara.  This is a vast plain, but little elevated above the level of the ocean, and covered with sand and gravel, with a mixture of sea shells, and appears like the basin of an evaporated sea.

In the above excerpt from a report by Ann Plato, what does evaporated mean?
A.  Boiled
B.  Watered
C.  Moisturized
D.  Disappeared

D.  Disappeared

Answer Process
In the context of this passage, the presence of sand, gravel, and sea shells suggests that the meaning of evaporated is an antonym or opposite of the presence of water.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

My mother was named Harriet Bailey.  She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both colored, and quite dark.  My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather.  My father was a white man.  He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage.  The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.  My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother.  It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.  Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor.  For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.  This is the inevitable result.

In the above excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, what is the meaning of inevitable?
A.  Unavoidable
B.  Lucky
C.  Joyous
D.  Accidental

A.  Unavoidable

Answer Process
This is the unavoidable result.  Substitution makes it clear that separation creates the inevitable or unavoidable result of the loss of the natural affection between mother and child.


A Tale of Two Cities

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!  Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.

In the above excerpt from a novel by Charles Dickens, what does awfulness mean?

A.  Unpleasantness
B.  Putrefaction.
C.  Decay
D.  Wonderfulness

D.  Wonderfulness

Answer Process
Usually, awful means horrible, ugly, bad, etc.  In this case, however, awful is defined or equated with the word wonderful at the beginning of the passage, inspiring wonder or awe.

Practice – Questions

1.  Passage
The Origin of Species

Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons … The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing.  Compare the English carrier and the short-faced tumbler, and see the wonderful difference in their beaks, entailing corresponding differences in their skulls.  The carrier, more especially the male bird, is also remarkable from the wonderful development of the carunculated skin about the head; and this is accompanied by greatly elongated eyelids, very large external orifices to the nostrils, and a wide gape of mouth.  The short-faced tumbler has a beak in outline almost like that of a finch; and the common tumbler has the singular inherited habit of flying at a great height in a compact flock, and tumbling in the air head over heels.  The runt is a bird of great size, with long massive beak and large feet; some of the sub-breeds of runts have very long necks, others very long wings and tails, others singularly short tails.

1.  Question
In the above excerpt from a book by Charles Darwin, what is the meaning of orifices?
A.  Plugs
B.  Wrinkles
C.  Lids
D.  Openings

2.  Passage

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

2.  Question
In the above poem by Robert Frost, what does trodden mean?
A.  Fluffy
B.  Grassy
C.  Trampled
D.  Dark

3.  Passage

The Fall of the House of Usher

Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building.  Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity.  The discoloration of ages had been great.  Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine, tangled web-work from the eaves.  Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation.  No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones.

3. Question
In the above excerpt from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, what is the meaning of dilapidation?
A.  Disrepair
B.  Ugliness
C.  Mold
D.  Beauty

4.  Passage

The Strenuous Life

A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual.

4.  Question
In this excerpt from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt, what does slothful mean?
A.  Active
B.  Mammalian
C.  Slow
D.  Lazy

5.  Passage

U.S. Department of Transportation – Office of Drug & Alcohol Policy & Compliance

Safety is our no. 1 priority at the U.S. Department of Transportation.  And a cornerstone of our safety policy is ensuring that transportation providers across all modes – on roads, rails, water, or in the air, over land and underground – employ operators who are 100 percent drug- and alcohol-free.  We want – and we insist upon – safety-conscious employees at all times and under all circumstances.

Fortunately, the transportation industry over time has worked hard to reduce the number of accidents and crashes directly related to drug and alcohol use.  Nevertheless, human risk factors remain – and some transportation workers do use illicit drugs, or abuse alcohol, despite serious efforts to deter them.

5.  Question
In the above excerpt from an employee handbook, what is the meaning of cornerstone?
A.  A stone used between two walls of a building.
B.  Something that is essential.
C.  A rock.
D.  A street corner.

6.  Passage

The Taxpayer Advocate Service Is Here To Help You

The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is your voice at the IRS.  As an independent organization within the IRS, our job is to ensure that every taxpayer is treated fairly and that you know and understand your rights.  We can offer you free help with IRS problems that you can’t resolve on your own.  We know the tax process can be confusing, but the worst thing you can do is nothing at all!  TAS can help if you can’t resolve your tax problem and:
• Your problem is causing financial difficulties for you, your family, or your business.
• You face (or your business is facing) an immediate threat of adverse action.
• You’ve tried repeatedly to contact the IRS but no one has responded, or the IRS hasn’t responded by the date promised.

6.  Question
In the above excerpt from a government document, what does advocate mean?
A.  Lawyer
B.  Adversary
C.  Gadfly
D.  Supporter

7.  Passage

Of Parents and Children

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears.  They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.  Children sweeten labors; but they make misfortunes more bitter.  They increase the cares of life; but they mitigate the remembrance of death. The perpetuity by generation is common to beasts; but memory; merit, and noble works are proper to men.  And surely a man shall see the noblest works and foundations have proceeded from childless men; which have sought to express the images of their minds, where those of their bodies have failed.  So the care of posterity is most in them that have no posterity.  They that are the first raisers of their houses are most indulgent towards their children; beholding them as the continuance not only of their kind but of their work; and so both children and creatures.

7.  Question
In the above excerpt from an essay by Francis Bacon, what is the meaning of utter?
A.  Source of milk.
B.  Speak.
C.  Stifle.
D.  Whisper.

8.  Passage

Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.  Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which Learning and Genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.  Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.

8.  Question
In the above introduction, what is the meaning of censure?
A.  Criticism
B.  Suppression
C.  Praise
D.  Permission

9.  Passage

Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties

It would not be proper for the author to admit for one moment that there can be such a thing as a camp without a campfire, and for that reason the tree folks and the “missing link” whose remains were found in Java, and to whom the scientists gave the awe-inspiring name of Pithecanthropus erectus, cannot be counted as campers, because they did not know how to build a campfire; neither can we admit the ancient maker of stone implements, called eoliths, to be one of us, because he, too, knew not the joys of a campfire.  But there was another fellow, called the Neanderthal man, who lived in the ice age in Europe and he had to be a campfire man or freeze!  As far as we know, he was the first man to build a campfire.  The cold weather made him hustle, and hustling developed him.

9.  Question
In the above excerpt from Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties, what does hustle mean?
A.  Shove.
B.  Cheat.
C.  Deceive.
D.  Work hard.

10.  Passage


To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

10.  Question
What does Hamlet mean by fortune?

A.  Wealth
B.  Money
C.  Gold
D.  Chance

Practice – Answers

1.  D.  Openings

2.  C.  Trampled.

3.  A.  Disrepair

4.  D.  Lazy

5.  B.  Something that is essential.

6.  D.  Supporter

7.  B.  Speak.

8.  A.  Criticism

9.  D.  Work hard.

10.  D.  Chance

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