Part II of Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

In the last post, we discuss the first three clues that a person can use to finding the meaning of unknown words. In this post, we conclude our discussion by looking at the last two rules, which are

  • General sense of the sentence
  • Clues from another sentence

General Sense of the Sentence

This clue is really not a clue. In other words, there is nothing in the sentence that provides a hint as to what the unknown word is. Instead, the student uses their prior knowledge and personal life experience to determine the meaning of an unknown word. An example sentence is below. Keep in mind that there is no signal word or phrase for this type of clue. The unknown word is the word clumsy.

The drunken man was staggering, falling all over the place, and looked really clumsy.

Assuming a student does not know what the word clumsy means he can call on his experience to figure the word out at least partially. For example, many students know how intoxicated people act. It is not a secret that drunken people at not very careful and the sentence indicates that the person was falling down. Therefore, the word clumsy means someone who has poor control of their body.

Clues from Another Sentence

At times, the meaning of a word is not in the sentence that you find it. For many students, they stop reading until they figure out what the word means. This is often a mistake because many times the meaning of the unknown word is in the next sentence or beyond. In other words, sometimes a student needs to keep read.

Below is an example. Remember that there are no signal words or phrases for this clue.  The unknown word is the word convoluted.

  • This book is convoluted. I cannot understand it because it is so complicated

Notice how the first sentence had the unknown word but no meaning. It is in the second sentence that the definition of the word can be extracted.


The clues shared here are only to help a student. They are not intended to replace a dictionary. There are times, however, when students cannot use dictionaries such as during a test or when one is not available. It is in the context such as these that these clues for finding the meaning of unknown words can be helpful.

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