Words in context | Lesson (article) | Khan Academy (2024)

What are "words in context" questions?

On the Reading and Writing section of your SAT, some questions will ask you to select the most logical and precise word or phrase in a given context.

Words in context questions will look like this:

Words in context: Example

In recommending Bao Phi’s collection Sông I Sing, a librarian noted that pieces by the spoken-word poet don’t lose their ______ nature when printed: the language has the same pleasant musical quality on the page as it does when performed by Phi.

Which choice completes the text with the most logical and precise word or phrase?

Choose 1 answer:

Choose 1 answer:

  • jarring

  • scholarly

  • melodic

  • personal

We've never read Bao Phi's poetry, so how are we supposed to know what the poems are like? Well, luckily we don't have to.

If we look at the second part of the prompt text (the part after the colon), it tells us what Bao Phi's poems are like: they have a "pleasant musical quality". The most precise word in this context will emphasize the same positive association with music.

"Melodic" also means pleasant and musical, so it best emphasizes the point being made in context. The answer is (C).

How should we determine the most "precise" word?

A "precise" word is one that means exactly what it should in a given situation: it will fit its sentence perfectly and reinforce the text's meaning.

This last bit is important. We're not just looking for a word that sounds right or looks good. Instead, we need to understand the text and select the word with a meaning that best matches the point the text is making. This means that, when attempting words in context questions, reading comprehension is just as important as our knowledge of vocabulary.

To help us identify the best word in context, we should focus on two things: context and connotation.


Context refers to the specific scenario we're attempting to match a word or phrase to. To understand the context, we must read the provided text carefully.

Because we need to know the meaning of the word we're looking for, that meaning will be provided a second time within the text. This results in many prompts for words in context questions following a similar pattern of

Statement. Restatement.

The trick then is to match the word we're looking for with the equivalent idea in the other statement.

For example, let's look back at our example item prompt:

In recommending Bao Phi’s collection Sông I Sing, a librarian noted that pieces by the spoken-word poet don’t lose their ______ nature when printed: the language has the same pleasant musical quality on the page as it does when performed by Phi.

We have two matching statements here:

  • The poems keep their _____ nature when printed.
  • The poems have the same pleasant musical quality when "on the page".

Notice how the blank in the first statement lines up with the phrase pleasant musical quality in the second statement. This is the context that tells us what word that we should choose: the word that most closely means "pleasant" and "musical".


"Connotations" are the associations that we have with different words. One common example of connotation is whether a word feels positive or negative. Words can have similar meanings but vastly different connotations.

For example, the words "promising" and "ominous" both mean that something is predictive of the future. However, while "promising" has a strongly positive connotation, "ominous" has a strongly negative connotation. Therefore, these words can't logically applied to the same context.

If you're stuck on a words in context question, try focusing on these connotations. Is the sentence positive? Then the word we choose should be positive too!

For example:

  • The basketball star's promising play this season suggests a bright future.
  • The dark, ominous clouds on the horizon suggest a storm is coming.

Based on context clues like "bright" and "storm", it's clear where the positive and negative words are most appropriate.

How to approach words in context questions

To solve a words in context question, follow these three steps:

Step 1: Summarize the text in your own words

Don't just skim the text. Read it closely, and try to summarize the main idea in your own words. This can be tricky, since an important word is likely missing. If you're struggling to understand the text, try and translate each idea into a simple bullet point.

Remember, words in context prompts tend to follow a similar pattern. They will make a claim, and then they will expand upon or restate that claim in different words.

Step 2: Identify the key word, phrase, or idea

The text provides all the information you need to know. Whatever point the text is making, the correct answer will reinforce that idea. Often, there will be one word or phrase in the text that has nearly the same meaning as the correct answer. Find the right context clues, and the next part should be easy.

Step 3: Select the word that matches

If a choice changes the meaning of the text, or introduces a new idea or perspective, then it's not the most precise word in context. Only one of the choices will match and emphasize the idea being expressed in the text. You can select that choice with confidence!

Top tips

Charge it (+/-)

Sometimes connotation alone is enough to answer a words in context question. Is the text expressing something positive? If so, we can eliminate any choices that are too negative or neutral.

Let's look back at our example question:

We can tell the text is trying to say something positive (+) about Bao Phi's poetry: it has a "pleasant musical quality".

Which of the choices is a positive word?

"Jarring" is a negative word. "Scholarly" and "personal" aren't negative, but they're not exactly positive either...

That leaves us with "melodic", which is positive and is the answer.

Avoid unknowns

On test day, you may encounter some words that you don't know. Many test-takers make the mistake of selecting words that they don't know in the choices instead of ones they know better and "feel right". These students think the words they know better must be "traps", because they might "seem too easy". This strategy can often backfire.

To raise your chances of getting words in context questions correct, try this instead:

  • Eliminate what you can from the words you do know
  • Select an option from what remains.

Note: The only time you should select a word you don't know is if you can confidently eliminate all of the other choices.

Your turn

Words in context

The following text is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.

[Jay Gatsby] was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American—that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games. This


was continually breaking through his punctilious manner in the shape of restlessness.

As used in the text, what does the word “quality” most nearly mean?

Choose 1 answer:

Choose 1 answer:

  • Characteristic

  • Standard

  • Prestige

  • Accomplishment

Like many words, "quality" can mean different things in different contexts. It can be a noun that means something like "attribute", but it can also describe how good something is (e.g, "high quality" vs "low quality"). How is it being used here?

"This quality" is phrased in a way that refers back to something in the previous sentence. In particular, it seems to link to "that resourcefulness of movement...", which the previous sentence works hard to describe. That whole phrase, in turn, is being use to characterize the way is behaving.

So, "quality" is being used to describe an "attribute" of how Gatsby is behaving. (A), "characteristic", matches this use.

Words in context | Lesson (article) | Khan Academy (2024)
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