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Inferring Meaning

Implications For Reading

Implications For Writing

Inference: Reading Ideas as Well as Words

Ideally, speakers mean what they say and say what they mean. Spoken communication is not that simple. Much of what we understand—whether when listening or reading—we understand indirectly, by inference. Listening involves a complex combination of hearing words, analyzing sentence structure, and attempting to find meaning within the context of the given situation.

The situation with the written word is no different. A text does not contain a meaning. Readersconstructmeaning by what they take the words to mean and how they process sentences to find meaning.Readers draw on their knowledge of the language and of conventions of social communication. They also draw on other factors, such as knowledge of the author (“Would Henry say such a thing?), the occasion (“No one knew such things then!”), or the audience (“He’d never admit that publicly.”) They infer unstated meanings based on social conventions, shared knowledge, shared experience, or shared values. They make sense of remarks by recognizing implications and drawing conclusions.

Readers read ideas more than words, and infer, rather than find, meaning.

Inferring Meaning

Consider the following statement:
The Senator admitted owning the gun that killed his wife.
On the face of it, we have a simple statement about what someone said. Our understanding, however, includes much that is not stated. We find meaning embedded in the words and phrases. Unpacking that meaning, we can see that the Senator was married and his wife is now dead—although this is not actually stated as such. (In fact, the sentence is about an admission of gun ownership.) It is as though the single sentence contains a number of assertions:
  • There is a Senator.
  • He owns a gun.
  • He is married.
  • His wife is dead.
  • That gun caused her death.
  • The Senator admitted owning that gun.
Clearly, the original sentence is a clearer and simpler way of conveying all of this information. Writers take note!

On a more subtle level, we recognize that a public figure confronts involvement in a major crime. Our understanding need not stop there. We infer that the gun (or at least a bullet) has probably been recovered and identified as the murder weapon—or the notion of an admission would make little sense.

We also recognize the danger of unwarranted inferences. We recognize that we do not necessarily know if the Senator's admission is true. We do not really know whether the Senator is in any way responsible for his wife's death, nor do we know that she died of gun shot wounds (she could have been hit over the head with the gun). We do not even know if it was murder—it might have been suicide or an accident.

Are we reading things in here? Or are these meanings truly within the sentence? We are going beyond that the textsays, but not beyond what it actuallymeansto most readers.

Inferences such as these are essential to both written and spoken communication. Writers often only hint at what they mean, and mean much more than they actually seem to say. On the other hand, we can see the danger (and temptation) of assuming facts or interpretations for which evidence is not present, and recognize that a critical reader reads with an open mind, open to many possible interpretations.

The following story is often presented as a brain twister. In fact, it’s a reading exercise.

A man and his son are driving in a car. The car crashes into a tree, killing the father and seriously injuring his son. At the hospital, the boy needs to have surgery. Upon looking at the boy, the doctor says (telling the truth), "I cannot operate on him. He is my son."
How can this be? Decide on your answer before reading further.

Whether this passage is a brain twister or a reading passage, readers must assume that any lack of understanding is not due to the story, but due to their own lack of understanding. We must work harder to think about how the story might make sense.

We quickly see that we have to explain how a doctor can have a son ("I cannot operate on him. He is my son.") when at the same time the father is dead (“The car crashes into a tree, killing the father”). The answer: The doctor is the boy's mother. Many readers are blinded to this meaning by the sexist assumption that the doctor must be a male.

A somewhat similar example has been offered by Robert Skoglund, The Humble Farmer of Public Radio in Maine (http//www.TheHumbleFarmer.com), as follows:

We had visitors a week or so ago. Houseguests. Six of them. One of them was Oscar who teaches geology at the University in Utrecht. Now I love houseguests. Usually. But when they arrived I discovered that two of them couldn't even walk into the house. Had to be carried in. And then I found out they couldn't talk, either. What would you have done if you'd been in my place? How do you handle a situation like that?
See the end of the page for possibly the most appropriate advice.

Implications For Reading

All reading is an active, reflective, problem-solving process. We do not simply read words; we read ideas, thoughts that spring from the relationships of various assertions. The notion of inference equations is particularly powerful in this regard. Readers can use the notion of inference equations to test whether or not the ingredients for a given inferences are indeed present. To show lying, for instance, a text must show that someone made a statement that they knew was incorrect and that they made that assertion with the specific purpose of deception. If they did not know it was wrong at the time, it’s an error, not a lie. If they did not make the statement for the specific purpose of deception, we have a misstatement, not lying.

Implications For Writing

The notion of inference equations is equally useful for writing.

Writers must assure that the ingredients of the equation are present and clear, and that the desired relationships are signaled in a clear and effective way. As writers, we must be aware that our readers will interpret our thoughts.

We must strive to make our meaning as clear as possible. We must provide sufficient examples to make our ideas clear, as well as to short-circuit undesired interpretations. We must recognize what evidence is necessary and sufficient for our purpose, and assure that it is included.

And we must choose our terms carefully for accuracy and clarity of meaning, and spell out our exact thoughts in as much detail as possible. We must recognize biases our readers might bring to the text and explain and support our evidence as much as our conclusions

The advice: Buy diapers.

Related Topics
Inference: The Process
Inference and Analysis
Inference: Inference Equations
Inference: Denotation
Inference: Figurative Language
Recognizing What Examples Are ExamplesOf
Controlling Inferences: Patterns of Content

Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Ways to Read

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