Knowing a Word’s Meaning from Its Context for the GED Social Studies Test

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

When reading passages on the GED Social Studies test, you’re likely to encounter unfamiliar terms and phrases. You don’t necessarily need to know the exact definition of a term or phrase to understand the passage. You can often determine a word’s meaning from how it’s used in a sentence. Here are some suggestions for determining the meaning of a word in context:

  • Look for a definition immediately following the term. Sometimes, an unfamiliar word is followed by a phrase that explains its meaning, as in this example: “He was a connoisseur, a real expert and lover, of fine wines and cigars.” From the sentence, you know that connoisseur means someone who is knowledgeable and appreciative of fine things — in this case, wine and cigars.

  • Break the word down. Many words are made up of several parts. Breaking the word down into its component parts may reveal its meaning. For example, if you know that contra means “against,” you know that contravene means “against [something].” So if a judge contravenes the system’s due process, you know that the judge did something against the system’s due process even if you don’t know what contravene means. (Actually, vene is from the Latin verb venire, which means “to go,” so contravene means “to go against.”)

    Brush up on the meanings of prefixes and suffixes added to the beginning and ending of root words to change their meanings, such as con– (with), anti– (against), inter– (between), pre– (before), –ible and –able (can), –less (without), –ion and –tion (act or process), and –y and –ly (state of). Knowing some Latin roots is also very useful.

  • Consider the context in which a word is used. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, one of the charges against King George was the forced quartering of troops in private homes. You know that this quartering has nothing to do with fractions or cutting troops into pieces. You may also remember that military people refer to their residences as quarters. Combining that information, you can make a pretty accurate guess that quartering is a verb version of the word and means “housing” or “providing shelter.”

Here are a few questions to help you practice determining the meanings of words in context. Choose the best definition for the underlined word.

  1. Christopher Hitchens was well known for his acerbic wit, which was just as apt to entertain as to offend.

    • (A) sharp, biting

    • (B) assertive

    • (C) benign

    • (D) breezy

  2. The appellate court granted the defense a retrial.

    • (A) attractive

    • (B) having the power to appeal

    • (C) having the authority to permit requests

    • (D) criminal in nature

  3. The suffrage movement did have some early successes. New Zealand is recognized as the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.

    • (A) the right to suffer

    • (B) the right not to suffer

    • (C) the right to pray

    • (D) the right to vote

  4. As more businesses hire part-time employees, workers are increasingly reliant on ancillary income from side jobs to pay their living expenses.

    • (A) principal

    • (B) undependable

    • (C) supplemental

    • (D) unpredictable

  5. To counteract efforts to disenfranchise voters, some politicians promote a system for automatically registering voters on their 18th birthdays.

    • (A) incarcerate

    • (B) liberate

    • (C) emancipate

    • (D) deprive

Now check your answers.

  1. You probably know what acid means, and the sentence ends by implying that Christopher Hitchens’s wit could be offensive, so you should be able to select the correct answer as Choice (A), sharp, biting.

  2. From context you can work out that appellate must have something to do with appeal. You can be certain from the context that it does not mean “attraction,” so it must refer to appealing in a legal sense. That lets you conclude that appellate court must refer to a court where individuals can appeal a court decision, so Choice (B) is the correct answer.

  3. From the second sentence, you can surmise that the suffrage movement was one whose goal was to achieve voting rights for women and that suffrage means “the right to vote,” making Choice (D) the correct answer.

  4. Ancillary means “subsidiary” or “supplemental,” Choice (C). Principal income would come from workers’ main jobs, ruling out Choice (A). Although ancillary income may be undependable (Choice (B)) and unpredictable (Choice (C)), the phrase “from side jobs” clues you into the fact that the income is supplemental and not from the person’s main job.

  5. If politicians are promoting a system that enables more people to vote and it counteracts (acts against) something, that something must be disabling people from voting. Choice (D) is the only correct answer.