context (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Claire Kramsch describes the concept of context as a "relational" one: "In each of its five dimensions—linguistic, situational, interactional, as well as cultural and intertextual—it is shaped by people in dialogue with one another in a variety of roles and statuses" (Context and Culture in Language Teaching, 1993). (Jim Purdum/Getty Images)


In communication and composition, context refers to the words and sentences that surround any part of a discourse and that help to determine its meaning. Sometimes called linguistic context. Adjective: contextual.

In a broader sense, context may refer to any aspects of an occasion in which a speech-act takes place, including the social setting and the status of both the speaker and the person who's addressed.

Sometimes called social context.

"Our choice of words," says Claire Kramsch, "is constrained by the context in which we use the language. Our personal thoughts are shaped by those of others" (Context and Culture in Language Teaching, 1993).

See the observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "join" + "weave"


  • "In common use almost every word has many shades of meaning, and therefore needs to be interpreted by the context."
    (Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, 8th ed., 1920)
  • "The mistake is to think of words as entities. They depend for their force, and also for their meaning, on emotional associations and historical overtones, and derive much of their effect from the impact of the whole passage in which they occur. Taken out of their context, they are falsified. I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to some incongruous matter which quite distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether."
    (Alfred North Whitehead, "Philosophers Do Not Think in a Vacuum." Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, recorded by Lucien Price. David R. Godine, 2001)

  • Text and Context
    "[M.A.K. Halliday] maintains that meaning should be analyzed not only within the linguistic system, but also taking into account the social system in which it occurs. In order to accomplish this task, both text and context must be considered. Context is a crucial ingredient in Halliday's framework: Based on the context, people make predictions about the meanings of utterances."
    (Patricia Mayes, Language, Social Structure, and Culture. John Benjamins, 2003)
  • The Linguistic and Nonlinguistic Dimensions of Context
    - "Recent work in a number of different fields has called into question the adequacy of earlier definitions of context in favor of a more dynamic view of the relationship between linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of communicative events. Instead of viewing context as a set of variables that statically surround strips of talk, context and talk are now argued to stand in a mutually reflexive relationship to each other, with talk, and the interpretive work it generates, shaping context as much as context shapes talk."
    (Charles Goodwin and Alessandro Duranti, "Rethinking Context: An Introduction," in Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge University Press, 1992)

    - "Language is not merely a set of unrelated sounds, clauses, rules, and meanings; it is a total coherent system of these integrating with each other, and with behavior, context, universe of discourse, and observer perspective."
    (Kenneth L. Pike, Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics, University of Nebraska Press, 1982)
  • Vygotsky's Influence on Studies of Context in Language Use
    "Although [Belarusian psychologist Lev] Vygotsky did not write extensively specifically about the concept of context, all of his work implies the importance of context both at the level of individual speech acts (whether in inner speech or social dialogue) and at the level of historical and cultural patterns of language use. Vygotsky's work (as well as that of others) has been an impetus in the development of the recognition of the need to pay close attention to context in studies of language use. For example, an interactionist approach following Vygotsky is readily compatible with recent developments in such linguistics- and language-associated fields as sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, pragmatics, and the ethnography of communication precisely because Vygotsky recognized the importance of both immediate contextual constraints and the wider social, historical, and cultural conditions of language use."
    (Larry W. Smith, "Context." Sociocultural Approaches to Language and Literacy: An Interactionist Perspective, ed. by Vera John-Steiner, Carolyn P. Panofsky, and Larry W. Smith. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

    Pronunciation: KON-text