How To: Answer Vocabulary In Context Questions

One of the more unique question types on the ACT Reading section deals with the meaning of vocabulary words or phrases in the context of the passage. The most important thing to remember when approaching these questions is to choose the answer that is most consistent with the overall meaning of the sentence, not the literal meaning of the word in question. To do this, it’s often helpful to treat the word from the passage as if it were not even there. Let’s take a look at an example:


The two brothers were constantly fighting, seemingly never able to get along. When the older one made a mistake, the younger one chastised him.  If the younger one was slow to understand something, the older one insulted him. “Stop needling me!” Paul said.

As it is used in the passage, “needling” most nearly means:

(A) coddling
(B) congratulating
(C) abusing
(D) talking to


To answer these questions, you have two options. First, you can treat the word as a blank and choose your own word. Here, if the quote were “Stop ______ me!”, we might fill the blank with “yelling at”. Alternatively, you can simply read the sentence with each answer choice inserted and choose the one that is most consistent with the overall intended meaning of the sentence and passage. Either way, it’s clear that answer choice C is what makes the most sense. The important thing is to not look for an answer choice that is related to the literal meaning of the word, in this case “needling.”

On more recent tests, the ACT has shifted away from asking about the meaning of a word in context and towards asking about the meaning of a phrase in question. Again, let’s look at an example.


Ever the inventor, Edison worked tirelessly to find solutions to everyday problems. Edison loathed academics who were overly theoretical and instead thought that human knowledge should be bent toward the practical, so much so that he set up a studio in his home in Princeton, N.J. to test out his new ideas.

As it is used in the passage, set up most nearly means:

(A) created
(B) tricked
(C) fabricated
(D) invented


Because there is no literal definition of “set up”, we have to rely on context. Whichever method we use, “created” makes the most sense.

So, when faced with a vocabulary in context question on the ACT Reading section, rely on the overall meaning of the sentence and passage more so than your preconceived notions of the literal meaning of the word.

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About Owen

Owen earned a B.A.from the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Owen has experience tutoring in a variety of academic areas, but he specializes in the SAT, ACT, and GRE, as well as Math and Physics SAT Subject Tests. His background and test prep experience bring a valuable component to ArborBridge’s curriculum and program development team.

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