Literary Terms

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What is context?

Context is information preceding, following, or surrounding a word or phrase in a spoken or written statement.


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Context is information preceding, following, or surrounding a word, phrase, passage or text. This information usually improves or changes someone’s understanding of the text. On a sentence level, context provides insight into pronoun antecedents and other referents. On a textual level, understanding the context in which a work of literature was created allows you to better grasp its meaning and significance.

The word context first appeared in Middle English, where it referred to the arrangement of a text. It originated from the Latin word contextus (“to weave together” ), formed by combining com (“with”) and textus (“to weave”). 

An example of historical context informing reading is the interpretation and performance of Shakespeare’s works. Many modern readers of Shakespeare’s plays find the language formal, old-fashioned, and confusing. However, if you view them in the context of Elizabethan England, where they were written and initially performed, you find that syntax and vocabulary are accurate to how people spoke in that time and place. Understanding the historical and political context can also help readers appreciate the underlying messages, humor, and allusions throughout the plays.

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