Amanda teaches high school and college English. She has a bachelor's degree in literature and a master's in English.
What is Context?
Context helps readers understand what they otherwise wouldn't be able to comprehend. It is a much-needed assistant, helping readers define unknown words and make sense of outside information.
In writing, it is often necessary to provide new words, concepts and information to help develop a thought. For example, maybe you need to include a fact to support your claim or a quote to better illustrate your analysis of a literary work. Whenever you use a fact or quote from another source, it is important that you tell the reader a bit about that information first. This is what we mean by context. You need to literally surround that piece of information with text that illuminates its meaning and relevancy. That is why context, when broken down, literally means 'with text.' It helps readers understand that which otherwise, they wouldn't be able to comprehend.
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Context in Action
Including context means providing the reader with the situation, a background picture of where the piece of information came from and what or who is involved. If you are writing a book review and you need to include an excerpt from the text, then you'll need to tell the reader a) the situation, b) the setting and c) the speaker (if applicable) at the time of the quote.
Here is a quote from William Golding's Lord of the Flies: 'Maybe,' he said hesitantly, 'maybe there is a beast' (89).
As a reader, this excerpt makes little sense. Who is the 'he?' Who is the 'beast?' Why is 'he' wondering about the 'beast?' Is he afraid? Intrigued? Making a joke? Without context, we have no idea. Here is the same quote, but this time with context - the situation, setting and speaker - clearly identified:
While stranded on a deserted island, a group of boys believe there is a dangerous creature lurking in the underbrush; Simon is the first to identify this menace, suggesting to the boys that 'maybe,' he said hesitantly, 'maybe there is a beast' (89).
Here, the context clearly identifies the situation - the island boys recognize a threat - and also details where the quote takes place and who is speaking. We surround the excerpt with text, and in this, provide much-needed context. Without it, the reader is left with many unanswered questions; the quote confuses rather than enlightens. With context, however, the excerpt makes sense and is ready to support whatever claim the writer might want to make.
Context can also help readers understand difficult vocabulary words. By surrounding an unfamiliar word with familiar words, a reader can guess at the meaning of the new word. If someone asks you what pulchritudinous means, and you didn't know the definition off-hand, you are out of luck. However, if the person asking you used the word in a sentence - 'The heroine's pulchritudinous appearance, evident in her fair complexion and radiant smile, made all the suitors swoon' - you would now have a good idea that word pulchritudinous has something to do with being physically attractive. The clues, available in the context, allow for that.
Let's review. Context helps readers understand what they otherwise wouldn't be able to comprehend. It is a much-needed assistant, helping readers define unknown words and make sense of outside information. Without context, readers would not be able to fully understand the writer's intent.
The Purpose of Context
- Gives the reader an idea of who and what
- Helps define unknown words or make sense of outside information
- Allows the audience to understand the writer's intent and reason for including the information
- Necessary whenever a quote is used in a text
After you've finished, you should be able to:
- State what context is in writing
- Explain why context is necessary to include when using a quotation
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What is Context? - Definition & Application
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