What is Context? - Definition & Application

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Carlisle

Amanda teaches high school and college English. She has a bachelor's degree in literature and a master's in English.

Context refers to the underlying concepts and information needed to understand an idea or statement. Learn about the definition, application, and purpose of context. Explore how context helps in identifying the elements of a situation. Updated: 08/31/2021

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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  • 0:00 What Is Context?
  • 0:54 Context in Action
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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).

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