Word Clearing


Reference: Critical Thinking in Education


When there is confusion in a subject, the first thing to do is to isolate the area of confusion and check the understanding of the words used to explain that area. Hopefully that would handle the confusion or, at least, narrow it down.

Words and symbols form our basic understanding.

A word can have not only many definitions but also many shades of definitions. It is not only a missing definition but also a missing correct definition that generates confusion. Different contexts may require different definitions, or shades of definitions, for the same word.

It is the tendency of the mind to fill the missing definitions by preconceived notions. This leads to contradictions and conflicts in the mind. Therefore, it is very important to examine the definitions of the words in the context at hand. Correct definitions bring continuity, harmony and consistency to the understanding of the materials.

The following procedure helps determine correct definitions for words in study materials.

1.    Determine the broad concept of the word.

Look up the word that is not quite clear to you. You may find the broad concept listed under ‘history’, ‘origin’, or ‘derivation’ of the word in a dictionary.

The following broad concepts for some words are taken from “Dictionary of Word Origins” by John Ayto

The word STUDY comes from a Latin word meaning “eagerness, intense application”.

The word MATHEMATICS comes from a Greek word meaning “something learned”.

The word ARITHMETIC comes from Greek, ARITHMOS number + TECHNE skill, which means “number skill”.

2.    Look up the definitions of the word.

Next you may look up the definitions provided for that word. A good but simple dictionary is very useful.

Please note that small words like “a”, “of”, “in”, et cetera, have many different definitions. A wrong interpretation of such words may completely alter the idea expressed.

3.    Visualize the definitions.

Visualize the definitions as you look them up. To get a better idea you may bring up the images for that word on the Internet. Make examples of different definitions to understand the differences. Make sentences to get further clarity on a definition. Relate the different definitions to your experiences to make them real.

4.    Look up words in definitions as necessary.

If a definition contains a word that is not quite clear then look it up following this procedure. This may sometime get you in a long word chain. Keep an account of the words that you are looking up. Cross out the words from the list as you clear them up.

NOTE: It is okay to look up the same word as many times as necessary. Each time you look up a word you may pick up a new dimension of its meaning.

5.    Determine the definition that fits the context.

Once you have understood the basic concept, and have adequately examined all the definitions of the word, determine the definition that fits the context the best. Then review that area to see if the confusion has cleared up.


Keep examining the definition of words in that area until the confusion clears up fully. If the confusion persists in spite of your best efforts at “word clearing” then apply the procedure of “subject clearing”.


Reference Dictionaries:



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