ACT Reading

Vocabulary In Context Questions

Vocabulary-in-context questions are usually among the most straightforward questions on the Reading Test, as well as some of the least time-consuming.

The most important thing to understand about these questions is that they do not actually test the definitions of words or phrases in an abstract or absolute sense, but rather how words are used in the context of actual pieces of writing.

As a result, you do not need to know the exact definition of the word being tested. On the contrary, you only need to understand how it is being used in that particular place.

Keep in mind that the majority of the words tested will not be used in their most common definition - there would be little point in testing them that way. Consequently, if you see the literal definition listed as an answer choice, you can assume that it’s most likely incorrect.

You can, therefore, think of a question that asks, “As it is used in line 45, the word ‘confused’ most nearly means...” as actually asking, “As it is used in line 45, the word means...”

Follow this strategy to answer vocabulary-in-context questions:

  1. Take your pencil and in the passage, cross out the word you’re being asked about
  2. Read the appropriate section of the passage carefully and plug in your own choosing to replace the crossed-out word; the word you select should make sense in the context of the passage
  3. Select the answer choice that closely matches the one you chose

If you still do not spot the correct answer immediately, there are a few other strategies you can try:

  • Plug each answer choice into the passage and read it in context
  • Play positive/negative - If the surrounding information in the passage is clearly positive, you can eliminate any negative word and vice-versa.
Example 1 
         For all of modern history, a small, carnivorous South American mammal in the raccoon family has evaded the scientific community. Untold thousands of these red, furry creatures scampered through the trees of the Andean cloud forests, but they did so at night, hidden by dense fog. Nearly two dozen preserved samples - mostly skulls or furs—were mislabeled in museum collections across the United States. There’s even evidence that one individual lived in several American zoos during the 1960s—its keepers were mystified as to why it refused to breed with its peers.

1. As highlighted in orange, the word “evaded” most nearly means devalued
. eluded

2. The passage suggest that the scientific community regarded the South American mammal as

1. It’s reasonable to assume that evaded means something slightly negative, like “hid from” or “avoided.” If you know that’s the definition of eluded, you can pick B and be done. If not, play process of elimination. Confirmed is positive and means the opposite of what you’re looking for, which means C can be eliminated. Devalued and exploited don’t fit with the idea of being hidden by dense fog, so they can be eliminated as well. Even if you’re not entirely sure what eluded means, you can still pick the correct answer as B.

2. You must find the information that describes what scientists think about the mammal. The mammal evaded the scientific community, and its keepers were mystified. The correct answer must, therefore, mean something like mysterious. That is the definition of enigmatic, so A is the correct answer. Even if you don’t know what enigmatic means, however, you can still get to A by process of elimination. Threatening, adaptable, and endangered entirely unrelated to the idea of being mysterious.
Example 2: The following passage is adapted from Susan B. Anthony’s Remarks to the Woman’s Auxiliary Congress of the Public Press Congress, May 23, 1893. 

              Mrs. President and Sisters, I might almost say daughters - I cannot tell you how much joy has filled my heart as I have sat here listening to these papers and noting those characteristics that made each in its own way beautiful and masterful. I would in no ways lessen the importance of these expressions by your various representatives, but I want to say that the words that specially voiced what I may call the up-gush of my soul were to be found in the paper read by Mrs. Swaim on “The Newspaper as a Factor of Civilization.”

           I have never been a pen artist and I have never succeeded with rhetorical flourishes unless it were by accident. But I have always admired supremely that which I could realize the least. The woman who can coin words and ideas to suit me best would not be unlike Mrs. Swaim, and when I heard her I said: “That is worthy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”While I have been sitting here I have been thinking that we have made strides in journalism in the last forty years. I recall the first time I ever wrote for a paper. The periodical was called the Lily. It was edited and quite appropriately—by a Mrs. Bloomer. The next paper to which I contributed was the Una. These two journals were the only avenues women had through which to face themselves in type to any extent worthy of note before the war.

           The press was as kind as it knew how to be. It meant well and did all for us it knew how to do. We couldn’t ask it to do more than it knew how. But that was little enough and I tried an experiment editing a newspaper myself. I started a paper and ran it for two years at a vast cost to every one concerned in it. I served seven years at lecturing to pay off the debt and interest on that paper and I considered myself fortunate to get off as easily as that.

1. As highlighted in orange in the first paragraph, “voiced” most nearly means

2. As highlighted in orange in the second paragraph, “coin” most nearly means
think up
learn about

3. As highlighted in orange in the second paragraph, “avenues” most nearly mean

4. As highlighted in orange in the third paragraph, “concerned” most nearly means

1. Anthony is basically saying that of all the speeches, she particularly liked Mrs. Swalm’s speech because it voiced the gush-up of (her) soul. In other words, it “voiced” her deepest feelings. Voiced means something along the lines of expressed. Conveyed is closest to expressed, making D the correct answer. 

2. Anthony is talking about the qualities of her ideal speechwriter; in that context, think up makes perfect sense. If you know that the second meaning of coin is “think up,” then you can assume C is the correct answer from the start.

3. If you plugged in your own word, you might have said something like channels. Means is a synonym, so it is correct. If you think this sounds strange, you can work by process of elimination. None of the other answers make sense at all in context. The correct answer is B.

4. “Worried” is the most common definition of concerned, which means that you can eliminate it from the get-go. If you had to plug in your own word, there’s a pretty good chance you’d come up with something like involved, which is, in fact, the answer. The correct answer is B.