What's in a Word | All Blogs

Context matters

By Debra Dobbins

A vital reading skill is the ability to understand context. Knowing the meaning of this simple word helps us build vocabulary. Context means the words around a specific word that help the reader understand its meaning.

A good example is found in Dana Isham’s letter to the editor today. Check out her first paragraph:

As I read this, I had to pause over the word Nostradamus. It was not entirely unfamiliar. Surely, in some college course somewhere, I had seen his name before, but I couldn’t dredge up specific details about the man.

Luckily, the writer provided context clues for me to get an idea of why his name was used. She linked the name to “crystal ball,” which is used to predict, and soon after she actually used the verb “predict.“

So…within the context of the sentence, I deduced that Nostradamus must have been famous for predictions. A quick check of Wikipedia confirmed that he was a “reputed seer who published collections of prophecies that have since become famous worldwide.” Wikipedia states that the Frenchman’s book Les Propheties (The Prophecies) first appeared in print in 1555.

In the rest of her letter (see below) the writer uses a phrase also originating in France: laissez-faire. In this case, using context clues is a bit more complex. The reader must read and understand the entire letter to deduce that laissez-faire must mean a hands-off approach. Sure enough, Webster’s defines it as the “practice of letting people act without interference or direction.”

To explain the origin of this phrase, Wikipedia uses an anecdote found in J. Turgot's "Eloge de Vincent de Gournay," written in 1759. During a meeting between the French finance minister and a group of French businessmen, the finance minister reputedly inquired how the government could help the merchants. The merchants’ leader retorted, “Laissez-nous faire." That translates as “Let us do it.”

Understanding context is important for another reason. If words are lifted out of context, they can be spun into something the original speaker or writer did not intend.

Consider, for example, the recent headlines on Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee who lost her job because a blogger posted some of her remarks in a public speech without necessary context. The edited remarks made her look racist, and there was an immediate outcry.

  file photo of Shirley Sherrod

When the full story emerged, her boss apologized and offered her a different job. President Obama also called to apologize. She is still considering whether to accept a new position, but has decided to sue Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who chose to ignore context.

Context matters…both for building vocabulary and for ensuring fairness. 



Here's the rest of Isham's letter:



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