If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Clarifying meaning | Quick guide

"Clarifying meaning" questions

What does it mean?

Clarifying meaning questions ask, “what did the author mean by this?”
In a given text, words and phrases do not appear in isolation but are embedded in the context of a narrative, an argument, an explanation, and so on. Accordingly, clarifying meaning questions test your ability to identify contextually appropriate meanings of words and phrases. In other words, you’ll need to be able to interpret words and phrases not just as a dictionary would define them, but as the author is specifically using them in context.
What this wider context does, among other things, is:
  • clarify ambiguous expressions,
  • narrow the meaning of vague expressions, or
  • supply a definition for unusual uses of an expression.
There are three main varieties of clarifying meaning questions: find a synonym, find the referent, and interpret the meaning.

Find a synonym

  • “Which one of the following phrases, if substituted for the word ‘_____’ in line ____, would LEAST change the meaning of the sentence?”*
  • “If substituted for the word "___" in line ___, which one of the following words would convey the same meaning in the context of the passage?”*
With these questions, you’re essentially looking for a synonymous word or phrase.


  • Cover and predict! Some students find it helpful to place a finger over the word or phrase and come up with their own synonym before even looking at the choices. Once you’re sure you understand the general meaning, then head to the choices and find the one that matches what you came up with.
  • Plug in the choices. Another option is to reread the sentence with each choice in place of the word or phrase, to see if it fits. This can also be a good way to double-check the choice you picked or to narrow down options.

Common wrong choice types

Be wary of “obvious” meanings. These questions often ask about a word that is being used in an uncommon way—a word that, in context, is actually being used for its secondary or tertiary meaning, not its most common meaning.
Remember: just because a choice offers a definition that works in general doesn’t mean it’s the definition that works within the context of the passage.

Find the referent

Another variation of this type of question will test your ability to identify what earlier part of the passage a phrase is referring to. It looks like this:
  • “The phrase “____” (lines ____) can best be interpreted as referring to which one of the following?”*
Top tip: Don’t assume that the answer can be found right around the lines mentioned—the phrase may refer to a concept that has been introduced and developed much earlier in the passage.

Interpret the meaning

These clarifying meaning questions are a bit more open-ended, but the basic concept is the same. They go like this:
  • “In writing ‘____’ (lines ____) the author of passage B most likely means that...”*
Again, the task here is to clarify the ambiguous, narrow the vague, or supply a definition for an unusual use of an expression. Occasionally, a question will highlight a simple metaphor or simile, and ask you to choose a more direct way to say the same thing. You definitely don’t need to have studied figurative language to answer these questions; you just need to be able to identify what the author is getting at.

Comparative Reading passage pairs variation

  • “The author of passage A uses the phrase ‘X’ to refer to which one of the following ideas/concepts mentioned in passage B?”

Predict, predict, predict!

When you go back to the passage, and work out your own predicted answer before you look at the choices, you will save time and increase your accuracy on most clarifying meaning questions. You won’t waste time thinking through each choice and whether it might work, because you’ll already know what you’re looking for!
Trust yourself.

Want to join the conversation?