Communication, Grammar, Writing

Context: It Matters! (Part One)

Context is the background, details, or circumstances that surround a written work, similar to the way a neighborhood surrounds a house. Have you ever tried to read a book or article where you knew what the words meant, yet you couldn’t make sense of it? The problem might have been a lack of context.

Why is context important?

Here is a short personal essay, the type that might appear on Facebook or on a blog.

Angela, Julian, and I are at our desks right now, going through files and preparing for the meeting with XYZ Tech. Kathy is on the phone with a client, trying to straighten out a misunderstanding over an invoice. I can’t see Ivan, but I can hear him in the next room, swearing at the copy machine in two different languages. The boss is sitting in his big chair, with Nicole on his lap.

For readers who are familiar with the hustle and bustle of a busy, modern office, this paragraph isn’t difficult to understand. They would recognize the context, even though the author does not use the word “office”. We don’t know what kind of company this is, but there isn’t any technical or field-specific terminology that would confuse the average reader.

What about that last sentence, though? Is the boss having an affair with an employee, right out in the open? Is this company in danger of a sexual harassment lawsuit, or is it located in a place where such behavior is tolerated?

If we read on, the context will give us the answer:

As I head over to the water cooler for a drink, Nicole jumps down and runs over to me, her tail wagging. She knows that her biscuits are stored in the bin next to the water cooler. I bend over to pat her fuzzy head and tell her she’s a good girl, but I can’t give her a biscuit. The boss only lets Nicole have one biscuit before lunch, and Julian just gave her one ten minutes ago.

Ah, so Nicole is an animal! Based on the context, it is most likely that Nicole is a dog– a small dog. She could be an office pet, a service animal, or the boss’s dog that he often brings to work. Whatever the case, this second paragraph provides more context which allows us to understand what was happening in the first paragraph.

When there isn’t enough context

At TextRanch, a lack of context sometimes means an editor is not able to correct or improve a particular piece of writing. This usually happens when a text is shorter and consists of either an incomplete sentence or a run-on sentence without anything to show us where one idea ends and another begins. These texts also tend to include field-specific terminology, abbreviations, and acronyms. Sometimes we also see words that look like names, but we can only guess if it’s the name of a person, a place, a company, or a computer program.

This is why we encourage our customers to leave a note with some context when they submit a job to TextRanch. The more we know about the context, the better your revision will be.

In our next article, we will look at how time, place, field-specific jargon, and other details can be part of the context of a written work.

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