What is an Inference?
Let’s talk about inferences in reading and writing. An inference is a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning. First, we’ll talk about how this can help improve your reading skills, then we’ll talk about how you can apply it to your own writing.
If you’re making an inference while reading, you’re making a guess about what you don’t know based on the information available–basically, you’re reading between the lines. You can use your prior knowledge and textual information to draw conclusions, make critical judgments, and form interpretations of the text. Inferences can occur in the form of conclusions, predictions, or new ideas.
The easiest way to show this is with an example. Let’s say I arrived at school but couldn’t find my lesson plan. I knew I was reading it over breakfast, so I make the assumption that I left it on the kitchen table. This is an inference–I don’t know for sure where I left it, but I’m making an inference based on the fact that I know I was working on it at home.
You make inferences every day. Maybe you are able to finish your friend’s sentence because of the information they’ve already given you; maybe you predict the ending of a movie before it comes; maybe you can tell what singer is on the radio based on the sound of their voice and the topic of their song. All of these are things you’ve discovered based on surrounding facts, not actual knowledge. All of these are inferences.
Reading is an active, reflective, problem-solving process. You don’t just want to read words, you also want to understand the deeper ideas the author is trying to communicate. When you’re reading, it’s helpful to look for patterns or relationships in the text that might shed greater light on the subject. Let’s look at Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird for an example of this:
“Remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…that’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This inference helps us draw a connection between the mockingbird and Boo Radley–the mockingbird is innocent and does nothing but make music. This is a symbol for the innocence of Boo, and highlights the thematic heart of the novel: those who have the power must protect the vulnerable. It’s a beautiful inference, but you’ll note it is never stated directly in the novel. It’s a gem left to be discovered by the reader.
Inferences can help with smaller practical reading comprehension problems, too. Sometimes, if you don’t understand what a word means, you can infer its meaning from what’s around it in the sentence. Take, for example, the following sentence:
She was gregarious, found always at one party or another around town surrounded by laughing people. Her door was always open.
Even if you didn’t have a dictionary to tell you that gregarious means a person who enjoys social gatherings and is fond of company, you could glean as much from the description of the subject as someone who liked parties and whose door was “always open.”
Now, let’s talk about how you can work inferences into your own writing.
Try this: practice writing a paragraph describing something you’re familiar with–your cat, a movie, a pineapple pizza–without explicitly stating what it is. Then see if your friend can figure out what you’re talking about without being told. If they can, they are making an inference.
You’ll probably note that your writing is much more creative and engaging then it would have been if you simply stated what it was you were talking about. You have to work hard to describe the things you’re familiar with in new words and phrases, and that makes your writing more interesting. Take a look at this example:
Half a dozen students huddled at the end of the street. It was 7:00 a.m., just moments before the bus was supposed to arrive, and the street light spilled around them in a pool of light. They shuffled back and forth to keep warm, rubbing their hands together and stamping their feet against the frozen pavement.
If I were to ask you what season is described in this piece of writing, you’d probably say “winter” right away. We talked about cold temperatures and frozen pavement, plus it’s still dark at 7:00 in the morning, which is distinctly a winter characteristic. You can see how writing for inference in this case was more imaginative and effective than simply saying, “students waited in the cold winter for the bus.”
To sum up, understanding inference can enrich your reading by helping you read between the lines for the author’s intent; it can also enrich your writing by helping you paint vivid pictures without stating the facts directly.
I hope this video has inspired you to use inferences in your own writing. Thanks for watching this review on inferences, we hope you feel prepped and empowered!