Failure to fully grasp context distorts the intended message

After the National Breakfast Prayer meeting at the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi last week, Deputy President William Ruto drew a lot of flak on social media for remarks he made about former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

While on average DP Ruto’s pronouncements come across as objectionable, this time round the vitriol directed at him was completely undeserved. It was amazing that the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) even called a press conference to lambast the DP. In all fairness, Ruto was responding to an issue raised in jest by a British Pastor who was at the function. It was only fair that he responded in kind. Clearly, the ire and raising of hackles were subjective reactions that completely failed to appreciate context.

The dictionary definition of context is; “words that surround other words and impact their meaning or the setting in which something occurs”. Sometimes context is defined as “the whole situation, background or environment relevant to a particular event, personality or creation”.

Going by the latter definition, and considering the event at which Ruto gave his remarks that were taken out of context was a solemn prayer meeting, it is fair to classify them as comedy, not satire, sarcasm or innuendo. While the rationale behind comedy is to lighten the mood of an audience, satire, innuendo and sarcasm are intended to malign or express contempt. In any other context (political, especially), the latter, rather than the former, would have applied.

Phrasal verbs

That said; let us have a look at how context is important in aiding our understanding of various aspects of the English language. Many English words that are spelt, and sometimes pronounced the same way (homophones, homonyms etc.), carry different meanings depending on how and where they are used/placed in a sentence.

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Thus, what meaning a reader attaches to some of these words is determined by the context in which they are used. This also applies to phrasal verbs that though they may feature the same words; it is the order of the wording that determines what meaning one derives from it.

On their own, words like ‘tire’, ‘game’ and ‘tear’ are vague, only making sense when enclosed by other words. For example, if I said “A school in Western Kenya came under attack for charging students Sh15,000 to watch game in Nakuru National Park”, one understands game here means wild animals. That clarity is given by the words “National Park”.

Conversely, someone else saying “I am going to watch a (the) game at the stadium” is referring to a sports discipline; either athletics, boxing, football or table tennis. That clarity is given by indefinite and definite articles ‘a’, ‘the’ and the noun “stadium” which, in this context, shows the environment.

Game up

Still, the word game can be used in a different context to express willingness/ acceptance. For example; “If you want volunteers for this dangerous mission, I am game”. By saying “Game up” or “the game is up”, one means “it is over” or that a secret has finally come out. “He shed a tear (cried) on witnessing the accident”. “She mended the tear (torn part) in her favourite dress”.

Similarly, whether the word ‘tire’ is used to express physical/ mental exhaustion or to describe the wheels of a vehicle depends on the context. For example, “The projected fifteen kilometer steep mountain climb will tire them” and “The left front tire (tyre) of his car burst after he hit a pothole at high speed”.

Sometimes phrasal verbs are tricky to use. Phrasal verbs are defined as combinations of a word, verb, adverb and preposition or proposition. Examples include ‘to put up’ and ‘to pass out’. First, by saying “Henry put up a magnificent house”, we mean that Henry erected a magnificent house.  Yet to say “Beatrice had to put up with her abusive husband” means Beatrice tolerated her abusive husband despite the ill treatment he habitually handed her.

Last Saturday, Kenyans celebrated Madaraka Day in Narok County where the Head of State was in attendance. In the congestion, the heat and rush to get into the stadium to witness the ceremony firsthand, some people were seen to “pass out (faint) in the melee (intransitive). When soldiers and police officers complete their work related training, they are said to have” passed out” (graduated). In a gathering where it is necessary to distribute pamphlets, the action of distribution is referred to as “passing out” (transitive).

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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National Breakfast PrayerRaila OdingaWilliam Ruto