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How to identify the intended meaning of a sentence when a word with different meanings is used in it.

For example, consider this sentence:

"I was tremendously apprehensive"

If taken out of context, it seems hard to tell whether the person meant:

  1. I was capable of understanding.
  2. Or, I was anxious.

So, my question is: Is there a general strategy for dealing with such cases? Or, is it impossible to tell the meaning without looking at the broader context? And, if it is the case, are there any heuristics which can be applied in such situations?

Thank you!

For reference, the above sentence is taken from this article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/10/20/late-bloomers-malcolm-gladwell, where the meaning becomes clear when read in context.

  • To apprehend might be used in an epistemological treatise to refer to acts of sensory perception and the forming of concepts especially as those actions are traditionally presented in philosophical works of earlier centuries, but the verb and its related abstract noun are not used outside of such contexts in contemporary English to mean "to comprehend, to understand". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 3 '18 at 12:52
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The alternate definition you mention for the word "apprehensive", related to "understanding", is extremely rare. Dictionaries note this, and if you needed any further convincing, this British English speaker has never heard it used.

This is the inherent problem with using a dictionary - it can give you rare or archaic definitions of the word which can cause confusion. To a native speaker, there is no ambiguity in the sentence you quoted. There is really only one widely understood definition of "apprehensive" - to feel nervous or apprehensive about what may be about to happen.

The answer to your question is to look at the broader context. You don't usually have to look that far - you should be able to get the meaning from the surrounding sentences. You asked if there was a "general strategy" for such situations - I would suggest looking at the first definition if using a dictionary, and only considering other possible meanings if the first and most common definition does not fit the context.

  • Thanks! This seems like a reasonably good heuristic. I have noticed that almost always I have been able to infer the meaning without looking at the dictionary. It is only when the context is short, that I find it difficult to identify the intended meaning. Next time, I will keep this "first fit" by popularity order method in mind. – EnglishLearner Oct 3 '18 at 11:56

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