Learn English – Inappropriate meaning of “inappropriate”, depending on context


The meaning of the word "inappropriate" somewhat changes depending on context.

In the sentence

In an email reply to my professor, I misunderstood what he told me and
wrote something inappropriate.

the word means something that is at least a little insulting, hurting or irritating in a negative sense.

When I say the use of "inappropriate" in the text is inappropriate, that does just mean the word is not used in the right manner, with no further implications.

The correct meaning (assuming no rudeness, insult etc) with only one word changed would be

In an email reply to my professor, I misunderstood what he told me and
wrote something wrong.

It can be written in nicer forms, but this is a modified example from a real question text.

I think the best example of this effect, is the word, "fuck".
It can even have context dependence on the voice modulation!

I am sure there are many examples – write as comments if you like!

So, are my assumptions right?
Does this context dependent meaning change have a name?
Is there some more formal description of it?

Best Answer

Inappropriate actually means not suitable—but it doesn't define why it's unsuitable.


: not appropriate : UNSUITABLE • inappropriate behavior • The movie's subject matter is inappropriate for small children.

Something can be unsuitable because it's insulting just as much as it can be unsuitable because it's used incorrectly.

In some contexts, an insulting word can actually be appropriate and correct. (If you're trying to write crude jokes, language that is not insulting could be considered inappropriate.)

Meaning often is dependent on context. But I am unaware of any single word that describes this.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information website has a PubMed Central article called "Context-Dependent Interpretation Of Words: Evidence For Interactive Neural Processes". It starts by saying the following:

The meaning of a word usually depends on the context in which it occurs. This study investigated the neural mechanisms involved in computing word meanings that change as a function of syntactic context.

Note that the article uses context-dependent interpretation of words rather than anything shorter. With respect to your question, I would say that you'd have to live with something similar, such as context-dependent meaning.

There is the word homonym, but I believe it's too specific for your question:


1 a grammar : HOMOPHONE • the homonyms there and their
b grammar : HOMOGRAPH • The words lead, as in the metal, and lead, as in the verb, are homonyms.
c grammar : one of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning (such as the noun quail and the verb quail)