4 Types of Context Clues

Understand types of context clues to master vocabulary

Sherlock Holmes mural in a subway station

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Just like a detective following the clues that lead to the perpetrator of a crime, you as a reader must use the clues hidden in a text passage to determine the meaning of difficult vocabulary words. Context clues are simply that: hints or additional information the author provides (purposefully or not) that can help you understand the meaning of a particular word or phrase. These clues can be located in the same sentence as the vocabulary word, but they can also appear elsewhere in the passage. 

Why Context Clues Are Important

When you're working on the reading section of a standardized test, you're going to have to employ some prowess to get you through. Understanding how various types of context clues work can help you to understand difficult vocabulary words, which is a must on a long reading section. The text may be chock-full of words you don't completely grasp. Outside of the passage, you may not have any idea what they mean, but inside the passage, where all the juicy tidbits of their clues lie, you can figure those challenging words out. Context clues are also helpful when you're working to determine the main idea of a passage and struggling to make inferences because those words can help connect the dots in incredibly useful ways.

Four Types of Context Clues

A number of different types of context clues can be present in reading passages because every author writes in a different way. Some authors offer very little explanation for difficult words, throwing tough vocabulary in everywhere with little or no help, while other authors carefully craft their passages to ensure the reader can understand everything he or she is trying to explain. Everything from the restatement of a word to an outright explanation of the word in action can be present to aid in a reader's comprehension.

The meaning of the vocabulary word is in the sentence itself, usually following the vocabulary word.

  • Jack's duplicity—crafty dishonesty—enabled him to steal his coworker's pensions by funneling their money into an offshore account.

Notice how the dashes set off the definition. Commas or parentheses setting off a descriptive phrase directly after the vocabulary word (an appositive) can also point you to it, such as in clue no. 2.

Context Clue No. 2: Synonym

The sentence uses a similar word to help explain the meaning of the vocabulary word.

  • The baseball coach punished the team's duplicity, or deceitfulness after they admitted to using steroids to boost their batting averages.

Context Clue No. 3: Antonym/Opposite/Contrast

The sentence uses a word with an opposite definition to give the meaning of the vocabulary word.

  • It was your duplicity that caused me to break up with you! Had you been honest, I wouldn't have felt the need.
  • Unlike my last employee, who had integrity to spare, you have nothing more than duplicity and will not receive a recommendation from me for another job.

Context Clue No. 4: Example or Explanation

This type of context clue uses examples to help the reader infer the meaning of the vocabulary word.

  • His duplicity involved lowering his employee's salaries, increasing their stock options, and then stealing the money he saved by doing so.
  • I was aghast at her duplicity when she stole my diamond earrings, sold them on eBay, and lied to me about it the whole time.

Try Out Your Suspected Definition

After examining the context of the passage for clues to the unclear word, you should have an idea of what the vocabulary word means. Based on your estimate, try out a word in the sentence in its place to see if it makes sense.