Context matters

This morning I’ve been chatting with a friend in Shanghai who asked me how to say various things in English, and about the meaning of various English words and phrases. In each case I had to ask about the context to be sure that I chose the appropriate meaning or translation.

Some words have a number of possible meanings. In some cases you can only work out which meaning is intended from the context. In some cases though, the context might be ambiguous, either deliberately, perhaps for comic effect, or unintentionally.

When reading text or listening to speech in a foreign language, you can often guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. Or you can at least work out whether they are nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. It’s very useful to develop this skill and not to rely on dictionaries all the time.

This entry was posted in Language, Words and phrases.

4 Responses to Context matters

  1. Yes…this is called “pragmatics.” It’s now a whole field of linguisitics research.

  2. TJ says:

    Here, in order to be a wise man with great knowledge of Quran, you need to know lot about Arabic and the tiny details of it because there are lot of words that can assign maybe up to 10 meanings just by varying the meaning of one word!!

  3. TJ says:

    sorry I meant “lot of sentences that can assign maybe up to 10 meanings just by varying the meaning of one word”

  4. Ben L. says:

    I much appreciated the Mandarin word for context: ‘shangxiawen’ (4, 4, 2), the characters having assiciated meanings of “up”, “down”, and “writing” respectively. This apparently refers to the fact that traditionally Chinese is written top-to-bottom, right-to-left. Nowadays, much writing in China is done left-to-right in Western fashion, so I suppose a hypothetical modern word for context would be ‘zuoyouwen’ (3, 4, 2), or “left-right-writing”.

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