Understanding Word Meaning Across Subject Areas

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Words have different meaning in different contexts. Here are some strategies to figure out how to understand what words mean in different subject areas.

Expand Your Vocabulary the Fun Way

In seventh grade science, we had a current events assignment. Every week, we had to choose an article from the Sunday science section of the newspaper and paraphrase it for the class. One week, I chose to write about an article that described the relationship between Newton's laws of motion and the game of football.

I struggled with trying to explain the concept of inertia in a conversational way. What the teacher had not explained was that the goal of the assignment was not just to become familiar with current events in science. Instead, the objective was to understand and explain scientific concepts using everyday language. I was learning how to identify and use subject-specific vocabulary ('inertia) in different contexts (in the science curriculum, in the newspaper, in everyday conversation).

Reading literature, newspapers, and science provides you access to a variety of new words, and it can be easier to grasp their meaning when you discover them within the appropriate context. You can also expand your vocabulary in other subject areas, such as math, science, social studies, arts, music, etc. When learning about multiplication or mitosis or vibrato, you are probably not aware of the way words such as these can be used in varying contexts. Sometimes specialized terms from math or science can also show up in regular conversation.

The word 'set,' for example, means something different in a general conversation than in a math class. You use the word 'set' as a way to describe a group of things, like a 'set' of silverware, but it can also refer to the gesture of 'setting' a dinner table. In math, the word 'set' is used in a specialized way, like the range of numbers 1 to 10.

Set the table; a set of silverware
set the table

Context is Key

When you encounter a word that you don't know when you are reading, try to figure out what it means using its context. Look at the words around it. First make sure you understand the meaning of the sentence in its entirety. This should make it easier to figure out what the word means.

For example, let's return to the word 'inertia.' This word can be found in both science and everyday conversation. While it has a specialized meaning in science, it has a similar meaning in other contexts.

This article from 'Scientific American' explains 'inertia' in the context of a football game:

'A big part of Newton's first law is inertia, which would be the natural resistance a player at rest experiences as he sets himself in motion, and for a player in motion, to stop moving. A running back is at rest while he waits for the center to snap the ball to the quarterback. Once the play begins, the back pumps his legs to overcome static inertia, takes the handoff, and then tries to maintain moving inertia until a defenseman tackles him, restoring static inertia.'

This passage makes it easy to relate the subject-specific word, 'inertia,' to a real world situaion. It explains that the word relates to the motion of an object or body, as well as its momentum and speed. While 'inertia' retains a similar meaning used to explain these actions outside the realm of science, it can also be used as a way to describe how things remain unchanged, such as in the stagnant inertia of a bureaucratic government. In this example, we can see that while the word 'inertia' is similar in science and everyday conversation, its meaning can change slightly in different contexts.

Football players demonstrate laws of motion
football

Resources

But don't let context fool you, as it can often be misleading. We cannot rely on context alone to tell us what words mean. Using the example of a football game to explain the concept of inertia can help us grasp the relation of the word to motion, but it does not help us understand the general or specific meanings of the word. To fully grasp the meaning of a word, we can also look to the word's structure, or morphology.

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