Context Matters

Is tomato a fruit or a vegetable?  This debate has been going on for quite some time now, and it’s an interesting one.

On one hand, everyone knows that you’d eat tomatoes with other vegetables like peppers or onions, maybe mushrooms.  Also, tomatoes can be cooked in a variety of ways, but fruits are rarely cooked except in desserts.  (Tomato pie, anyone?)  People often eat a fruit raw and by itself, but who does that with a tomato?  By such reasoning, tomatoes are vegetables.

On the other hand, fruits are defined as the parts of plants that contain seeds, whether small ones as on strawberries or large cores as in peaches.  Tomatoes have seeds, therefore they are fruit.  The same can be said with other pseudo-vegetables like cucumbers, squash, and green beans, by the way.

So which is correct?  The answer: it depends.  What’s interesting about this debate is that the two sides are talking about two separate things; the context is different.  I’d say they’re comparing apples to oranges, but we don’t need to add more fruit to this situation.

You’ll notice the argument that tomatoes are vegetables is all about cooking and eating.  Within the context of food, tomatoes are vegetables.  But the context of the opposing argument has nothing to do with food; within the context of plants, tomatoes are fruit.  So the answer to this timeless question depends on whether you’re asking a chef or a botanist.  In other words, this debate is pointless, but it exists because sometimes we don’t pay attention to context.

Context can determine which clause is the main clause and which is the relative clause.

In the classroom, identifying and clearly expressing context is crucial.  Sometimes it’s up to you as the teacher to clarify the context when confusion arises over the meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence.  And when teaching something new, it’s typically best to establish the context (hopefully, something your students are already familiar with) before introducing the new element.  If they already know the context, it’ll be much easier for them to grasp the meaning or significance of whatever you’re teaching.

The students themselves also need to establish context.  The biggest problem I’ve seen regarding this is in writing assignments – essays, for example.  When given an essay prompt in an exam, students typically start writing without restating the prompt, assuming that whoever reads it already knows what to expect.  This isn’t always the case, and even though readers do sometimes know the exact prompt, leaving out the context isn’t a habit students should get into.  It doesn’t take much; just a brief line is usually all it takes.  Communicating in the real world relies a lot upon establishing context, so students need to learn how to do this well in the classroom.

When you’re facing some confusion in the classroom, consider whether the context was properly made known.  Better yet, make sure everyone is in the habit of expressing the context at the beginning to avoid any confusion in the first place.  Context matters.

Context determines how point-of-view words change.

Get more with Insider Access


Extra Video Content

more How-to-Teach grammar videos*

with intros, instructions, and summaries

*compared to free resources


Exclusive Supplemental Resources


posters & handouts

bonus notes


Advanced Features in Student Projects

search and filter

planning info

language illuminated

Translating Noun Cases

Many languages have noun cases. We don’t teach cases in English, but there definitely are some correlations between cases and English grammar. Maybe it would be a good idea to acknowledge some of the cases used in the students’ native tongue(s) and explain what English uses instead.

Read More »
language illuminated

Conversation Scripts

Conversation scripts are templates we use in everyday conversations, and there are similar ones in many other languages. Learning scripts can be a great way for students to feel more comfortable about speaking English.

Read More »
teaching tips

Exam Prep: Writing Essays

English language exams typically have a writing section, and many of those require test-takers to write an essay in a timed environment. If your students are preparing for such an exam, here are some practices they can employ to better prepare themselves for the writing section.

Read More »
teaching tips

Mistakes on Purpose

When students have the opportunity to correct the teacher, it reinforces that language point, assesses the students’ understanding of that language point, gives the learner confidence, and teaches students to problem-solve.

Read More »
teaching tips

The Shape of Writing

The shape of paragraphs can be an indicator of the style of a piece of writing. Taking these shapes into consideration when writing or editing can help improve the final draft.

Read More »

Share This Post