Preview Quiz 3

As a preview to what will be discussed in Part Two, try to answer this question:

The words "law and order" mean security to some people and oppression to other people.

What does this tell you about the meaning of a word?

  1. A word always means the same.
  2. The same word can have different interpretations.
  3. The dictionary does not always give correct definitions.

Begin reading Part Two to learn more about the meanings of words.

In this section we will (1) learn what inferences are, (2) see examples of the use of inferences in fiction and non-fiction, and (3) discover how making accurate inferences improves reading efficiency.

Dictionary Meanings and Associated Meanings

Understanding how inferences are made depends to a great extent on knowing about the dictionary meaning and the associated meaning of words. All words have at least one general dictionary definition. In addition to its dictionary meaning, however, a word may suggest another meaning, one which goes beyond the dictionary definition. The words "tall" and "big", for example, have the same general meaning, but different associated meanings. A big man is not necessarily a tall man, and a tall man is not necessarily a big man. Similarly, "meddlesome" and "interested" both mean inquisitive, but they clearly suggest different things. A meddlesome person is probably a busybody, whereas an interested person is probably sensitive and concerned.

Another example might be useful. The dictionary defines "mother" as a "female parent". But the word suggests much more. Most people associate "mother" with love, care, warmth, and tenderness. The dictionary does not give these associated meanings. However, for the person who has not enjoyed a pleasant mother/child relationship, the commonly accepted feelings attached to "mother" are very different. Thus, the meanings of a word depend on the images and associations they provoke and on the reader's reaction to them.

A single word can change the meaning of an idea. For example, "dear old soul" suggests kindness and respect. "Poor old soul", on the other hand, implies sympathy and pity.

Inferences are common in a wide variety of reading situations. In fact, nearly everything we read contains some kind of inference. An invitation to a "swinging weekend" is certainly inferential. A sign on a factory wall which says "Danger" is also inferential.

Successful advertising relies on inferences. Let us assume that you have been wanting a particular brand of stereo for some time. In the newspaper you read that a local store is having a sale on many brands of radios, televisions, and stereo equipment. When you read the ad, you infer that the store carries the brand you want, and further, that the particular brand is on sale.

Advertising slogans are often based on inferences. "Use Miss Haircare Whipped Cream Shampoo, for the time of your life" is an example. Most people think of whipped cream as a thick, rich, delicious dessert topping—a special treat. The clever advertiser expects the reader to associate the shampoo with the dessert topping. In addition, he wants the reader to infer that the shampoo creates excitement. Consumers buy many products because of the inferential claims of advertisers.

Preview Quiz 4

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Where are inferences commonly found?

  1. In newspaper editorials
  2. In magazine articles
  3. In all types of literature

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Inferences appear in newspaper editorials and in letters to the editor. They are common in magazine articles as well. Perhaps the most common source of inferences is in literature. Biographies, short stories, novels, and plays abound in associated meanings.

Inferences from Articles

The following paragraph is taken from a magazine article entitled Europe's New Cities. It is typical of the numerous inferential paragraphs found in newspapers, magazines and books. As you read, see how many inferences you can make.

When, in 1641, King Kristian of Denmark and Norway built the town of Kristiansand in his own honor; he had to bribe people to move there by giving them tax exemptions. He picked a choice spot for his new city, a piece of land within a mountain-sheltered bay on Norway's southern coast. He built streets that were wide for their time, laid out blocks of row houses in a grid pattern, and provided every home with a garden, safe from public view and the noise of the street. Indeed, some of his ideas—starting with the one of putting a town where there wasn't any before—are being applied in Europe today.

Did you notice that many inferences may be drawn about King Kristian? By building a town in his own honor, one can infer that he was somewhat vain. Yet, the fact that he built a new town for his people suggests that he was kind and thoughtful. His careful selection of a perfect spot for the town suggests that he was an intelligent urban planner. The application of his concepts in Europe 350 years later suggests that he was farsighted and had an inventive mind.

These are the most obvious inferences in the paragraph. More subtle ones may also be made, but the reader who sees the obvious ones, at least, understands how inferences are made.

Inferences in Literature

In literature an author relies on the reader's ability to go beyond the printed words for complete understanding of settings and characters. Both time and place may be presented inferentially. The appearance, speech, and actions of characters may be developed through inference also.

It is only natural that writers use inference in the creation of settings and characters because throughout our lives we assume much about people and places on the basis of what we observe. A picture of a resort surrounded by palm trees and sunny beaches suggests an ideal vacation spot. People's clothes, facial expressions, hands, movements, speech, and material possessions allow us to infer much about their views, attitudes, values, and goals.

Preview Quiz 5

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Which one of the following sentences would help you to make an inference regarding time?

  1. The huge plane landed.
  2. Torches were held high.
  3. The performers wore native costumes.

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Read the following example and notice the clues which suggest time and place.

The huge plane landed smoothly on the famous coral runway. We jostled toward the door which opened to a warm welcome. The part of the airport in front of us was lit by torches carried by two rows of men and women dancers. As drums throbbed, the torches, held high, made a criss-cross pattern. I learned later that this was a traditional welcome. All the performers wore the national costume. As we left the gangway, we received a garland of fresh, heavily scented frangipani blossoms, as well as a kiss from one of the hostesses.

Although the time of day is not stated, the mention of lighted torches suggests nighttime. The "huge" plane could be one of the newer large-capacity jets, so the scene may have occurred recently. The ceremony with torches, drums, and garlands of frangipani blossoms suggests a tropical island in the Pacific. "Traditional native costumes" supports this inference. Settings developed like this one with associated words are common in short stories and novels. A good reader responds to them.

Often in literature a writer uses association to describe a character's movements, gestures and actions. Notice how many inferences can be made in the following sentence.

When the phone finally rang, Joe leaped from the edge of his chair and grabbed for it.

The word "finally" suggests that Joe probably had been waiting for the call for some time. "Leaped" and "grabbed" support this inference and imply that he felt nervous and anxious. His position on the edge of the chair indicates uneasiness and expectation. The call was important, as can be inferred by the key words. The same character portrayal without inferences is wordy and does not appeal to the reader's imagination.

Joe was very nervous and anxious as he waited for an important phone call. Unable to relax for a moment, he sat on the edge of his chair. When the phone rang, Joe reached for it.

Many inferences can be made in the following paragraph written by Guy de Maupassant. They are made from the appearance and the actions of the characters.

Along all the roads around Goerville the peasants and their wives were coming towards the little town, for it was market day. The men walked with plodding steps, their bodies bent forward at each thrust of their long, bowed legs. They were deformed ... by the pull of the heavy plough which raises the left shoulder and twists the torso, by the reaping of the wheat which forces the knees apart to get a firm stand .... Their blue smocks, starched and shining as if varnished, ornamented with little designs in white at the neck and wrists, puffed about their bony bodies, seemed like balloons ready to carry them off. From each smock a head, two arms, and two feet protruded.

Preview Quiz 6

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

In the paragraph above, which words lead you to infer that the peasants described possessed pride and self-respect?

  1. The men walked with plodding steps, their bodies bent
  2. They were deformed ...
  3. Their blue smocks, starched and shining

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

The thin, deformed bodies of the peasants suggest a life of poverty and harsh manual labor. Their slow, painful walk reflects strength and courage, and their silent, serious disposition suggests a grim determination. The clean and starched clothing of the men and women reveals their pride and self-respect.

What a character says and how he says it can be presented through associated meanings. The following unrelated lines of dialogue illustrate this point.

The young man quickly answered, "Yes, sir."

Inferences: The character seems polite, respectful, and possibly even fearful.

"Lots of people think I'm just a green kid. I'll show 'em."

Inferences: The character seems proud, aware of the views of others, and possible threatening.

She twisted her head in several directions and after several long minutes commented on the painting, "It's different."

Inferences: The character is indecisive or evasive. Perhaps she does not understand the painting, or she does not like it.

Making Accurate Inferences

One must remember that inferences must be made with care and should always be supported by some evidence. The following is an example of an unsupported inference.

The old man staggered along the sidewalk. He grabbed at the picket fence to keep from failing. His torn gray overcoat flapped open in the winter wind.

A careless reader might infer that the man is drunk. But there is the possibility, however, that the old man is poor, sick and weak with age. Other inferences are possible also.

A reader can make accurate and reasonable inferences based on what appears to be true if

  1. he determines the author's point of view and his reasons for writing.
  2. he analyzes all the information presented.
  3. he notices the dictionary and associated meanings of the words.
  4. he reads and thinks beyond the printed words.

Having read and thought about inferences in reading, you should have a clearer understanding of the skill. Transfer this understanding to the sample exercise in Part Three.