Contextual Analysis: How to Guess the Meaning of a Word in English

— Fluency Fix

Listening and fluency go hand in hand. Sometimes when you’re listening to someone speaking English, you may understand 90% of what they said. To understand that other 10%, a handy tool is contextual analysis.

What is contextual analysis?

Contextual analysis is a technique that you can use to guess the meaning of something based on the context it was used in.  You use the words and sentences around the word that you don't know to try the guess the meaning.    

Let's try an example.

**Larry drinks too much. He spends too much. He beats his children. He sometimes steals from the supermarket. ** That guy is a real douchebag.  Right now, we don't know what douchebag means. However, since all the sentences before the word douchebag were negative. We can use contextual analysis to guess that douchebag will mean something negative. We can also guess that douchebag is a word that is negative that is used to describe a person.

By the way, the official definition of douchebag, according to is: --->

Slang: Vulgar. a contemptible or despicable person.

In the next activity, you'll learn a new idiom.  Idioms usually don't give you any hints because the words in an idiom often don't have anything to do with the real meaning of the idiom. That is what makes an idiom an idiom.  However, with this idiom we can still try to guess using contextual analysis. Listen to what she's saying before she uses the idiom and see if you can guess what this idiom means before we reveal the answer. 


The ball is in your court.  Usually, he is a very confident guy but this time he just couldn’t decide what to do. So, I just said to him, the ball is in your court.

The idiom, "The ball is in your court" is used whenever you want to tell someone that they are the only person who can make the next decision. No one else can make this decision. No one else is allowed to make this decision, only them.   This idiom comes to us from the sport of tennis.


In the sentence before the idiom is introduced, she mentions that he is having a hard time making a decision. This is how we can use contextual analysis to guess that this idiom has something to do with decision making. 

Here's another example.  The sales team gathered around the CEO to hear whether or not he would shut down the New York Office. Since he was the only one who could make that decision, the Vice president turned to him before the meeting and said, "The ball is in your court."

So, don’t get frustrated when you don’t understand a few expressions in a conversation. Instead, use contextual analysis to try to figure out the meaning of the phrases that you weren’t able to catch.  Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t able to do this in real time. You can even mull it all over after the conversation is over or on your commute home.  This way, discovering new words, expressions or idioms will be a fun adventure, and you’ll be more than ready the next time someone uses that phrase in a conversation.

To practice 365 English conversations, visit Link