Acknowledging the Unknown When Reading

Hello, and welcome to this Mometrix lesson on Acknowledging the Unknown!

The title itself sounds daunting, I know, but don’t get ahead of yourself making assumptions. When we’re talking about acknowledging the unknown, we’re talking about analyzing arguments; we’re looking at known information in an argument and understanding that we can’t draw conclusions about that information unless it’s expressly given to us. We’re examining the missing links and disconnected information in our example sentences. In other words, we’re going to learn how to differentiate between fact and mere assumption when looking at an argument or piece of text.

When analyzing an argument, you can only draw conclusions from the information that is given. If information is not given but assumed, this information is invalid and cannot be deemed credible because it was not expressly given in the original statement.

Now, you might be wondering, why is it important to differentiate between known and unknown information?

Distinguishing between known and unknown information in an argument allows for accurate and plausible conclusions to be drawn from said argument. Otherwise, if a reader assumes information that is not given, the reader runs the risk of misinterpreting the information they are trying to understand. Let’s try to look at an example and see if we can come up with some conclusions from the information.

John thinks gelato tastes better than ice cream. Gelato is not the same thing as ice cream.

First, we’ll examine what do know based on the given information and then we’ll look at what you don’t, or can’t, know.

From these sentences, we know:

  • John prefers gelato
  • He thinks it tastes better than ice cream
  • Gelato is not ice cream
  • Ice cream is not gelato
  • Ice cream tastes different than gelato, according to John

When I think about this, my first questions are how do they taste different? What is the difference between the two? Why does he prefer one over the other? Is there any real difference between the two? It’s natural for our minds to begin trying to fill in missing information and connecting links that may not necessarily be present in an argument or text. We can only form conclusions on gelato and ice cream based on the information that was given in the sentences.

Now, let’s look at an example that is not necessarily an argument but from a piece of literature.

Here’s a small excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

“…he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.”

Let’s first examine what we do know based on the information given and then we’ll look at what we don’t or can’t know.

From this quote, we know:

  • There is a man
  • We know that there is a house that has been set on fire
  • We also know that the man set the house on fire.

All of this information has been given to us in this quotation. I don’t know about you, but when I read this information, the first thing my mind wants to do is fill in the gap of why the man set this house on fire. However, no matter how badly I wish I could piece together that information, I can’t do so based on the little that we know.

Another unknown in this situation is the man. Who is the man? Because it is not given in this quote, we cannot assume anything about him. I wonder whose house he’s just burned down. It is tempting to try to create a backstory for this man and his situation, but unless you’ve read the book before and have learned that information from experience, we have to accept that missing information as unknown.

Let’s try one more example:

Karen prefers to take the bus around town. She does not usually drive her car.

In this example, we know:

  • There is a woman named Karen
  • She prefers taking the bus around town
  • She has a car
  • She does not usually drive her car

Now, as for the information we don’t know and can’t come up with explanations for:

  • Why does she prefer the bus?
  • Why doesn’t she drive her car instead?
  • What is the road layout of her town?
  • Is this for environmental reasons? Merely personal preference?

It’s hard not to ask ourselves these questions and to try and justify an answer based on the two sentences we are given. But, as we mentioned with the first example, any answer we could possibly come up with would be considered invalid because it is not given to us in the original sentences.

It’s worth noting that this concept applies a little differently when speaking directly to someone. When speaking to someone, you can rely on body language and personal knowledge to fill in the informational gaps of someone’s argument. However, when you are reading an argument, you don’t necessarily have all of the context clues needed to draw conclusions not otherwise mentioned.

It’s important to learn the skill of separating known and unknown information from each other because one day, you’ll have to analyze arguments or literature of some sort. If you analyze the information falsely and insert your own assumptions, you have then lost all credibility for your ability to examine information as it is given.

I know it’s a little tricky to get the hang of forcing your mind not to wander while reading and just stay true to the text, but when you master that skill, you’ll take your analysis and comprehension to the next level!

If you enjoyed this Mometrix lesson on acknowledging the unknown, be sure to hit “like” and “subscribe” to our channel for more videos. Until next time!


Return to Reading Comprehension Videos



by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: July 14, 2022