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TIP Sheet

We all make inferences; that is, we draw conclusions by using information to create new information. When you make an inference, you connect the dots from the known to the unknown, from the stated to the unstated. An inference is a logical conclusion based on an analysis of objects, sensations, events, facts, and ideas that seems likely in light of what is known. We can reach factual, that is, verifiable, inferences from factual information. For example, given the following facts, the conclusions are logical:

Fact: A lion can run 50 miles per hour.
Fact: A cheetah can run faster than a lion.
Conclusion: A cheetah can run faster than 50 miles per hour.

We reach non-factual inferences based on non-factual, even non-verbal, information, such as facial express and body language.

Active reading, listening, and note taking require us to make inferences, which are partly based on information the author or speaker has not supplied. To improve our ability to make valid inferences, it helps to understand the following:

  • our background knowledge affects our inferences
  • our assumptions affect our inferences
  • we draw inferences even from implied facts, implications
  • connotation creates implications


Background knowledge
College textbook authors expect you to have a certain amount of background knowledge–knowledge about people, history, arts, sciences, mathematics, and current events, for example–to draw meaningful inferences as you read. Students whose prior reading and breadth of experience have been limited find it more difficult to use textbooks and classroom instruction to reach valid conclusions. We acquire our background knowledge by reading, talking to people, traveling, watching the news, learning job skills–in fact, everything we have seen and done contributes to our background knowledge.

Inferences are everyday events. Suppose early one Friday morning you see your neighbor load a suitcase into his car. You infer he is going on a trip, and not a long one, either, with just that one suitcase. Later, at 11:30 a.m., you notice it has started to rain. You infer that the noon school picnic will be canceled. In each case, you do not know for sure, but your conclusion is based on what you observe and on your background knowledge. Depending on what facts you know, you could draw other inferences. For example, if you know the picnic area is covered, you may infer that the picnic will take place as planned despite the rain. Likewise, there may be another explanation for the suitcase-perhaps your neighbor is taking it out to be repaired. Maybe he has decided to use it to store his jumper cables and flashlight. Regardless, your inference at least is logical in light of what you do know.

It is an important part of developing critical thinking skills to distinguish our inferences, or conclusions, both from the raw facts and from our assumptions. Assumptions are the unstated and frequently unexamined beliefs we take for granted–that we ourselves, and most other people we know, will not gladly picnic on wet grass, for example. But it is possible for someone, somewhere, to hold a different view–that picnicking in the rain is quirky and fun. A frequent reason for disagreements between people who hold different opinions is that the people began with different assumptions.

For example, suppose Phong assumes that a capitalistic market society strengthens a democracy and leads to innovative solutions to social problems. He brings that underlying belief to bear on everyday matters, such as the price of textbooks in the student bookstore. Phong does not complain about the high price of his textbooks because he feels (a little vaguely, perhaps) it would be un-American; instead, he cheerfully cancels his cable subscription and puts the money he saves toward purchasing books. On the other hand, Karla assumes that capitalism weakens America, quashing innovation and impoverishing the greater part of society for the benefit of a rich and powerful few. Karla buys her textbooks because she must, but she is bitter and feels that the textbook producers are not acting like real Americans–in fact, she suspects they are not Americans at all, but some kind of supra-national cabal systematically preying on students and the intelligentsia. (See the TIP Sheet "Conspiracy Theories.")

Their different assumptions about the value of capitalism and what it means to be a "real" American lead Phong and Karla to different conclusions. Phong and Karla may have examined their assumptions and consciously affirmed them, but it's far likelier they have not. Therefore, neither Phong nor Karla can understand the other's attitude about buying textbooks: Why is he so passive, fumes Karla. Why is she so angry, wonders Phong. Their misunderstanding will probably continue until they realize they have different assumptions and discuss that.

Not all inferences are based on facts. We often make inferences based on a best guess or on implications. When a statement is only suggested or hinted at, it is an implication. We draw inferences and reach conclusions from implications just as we do from direct statements. The problem with drawing conclusions from implications is that the language of implications is slippery, sometimes intentionally so.

This can lead to shaky conclusions. Political mud-slinging is often based on implications constructed using misleading language that, in a pinch, can be disavowed ("I never said that!"). It is especially important to examine any inference based on implication; it may well be faulty, since the authors of implications tend to be selective about which facts to include and often use language chosen for "loaded" connotations.

(See the TIP Sheet "Deductive, Inductive, & Abductive Reasoning" for more information on "best guess" reasoning.)

One of the reasons we can make implications is that words have connotation. Denotation is the dictionary meaning of a word. Connotation is its "color" or emotional feel. Some words have negative connotations, some positive. Would you rather be called sensitive or touchy? Liberal or progressive? Religious or spiritual? We interpret connotation unconsciously, making inferences about both the author and material based partly on the "color" of the words.

Connotation is largely cultural. Students new to English, or students who lack background knowledge, often find it difficult to accurately sense connotations. Students whose range of vocabulary is limited also have a more difficult time "reading" connotation. Connotation can also vary among groups within a society. For example, to Karla's group, above, the word profit carried negative connotations, and to Phong's group, positive. (This is why, in polarized political issues for example, the statements of one group can sound so nonsensical–or even sinister-to the other group: the connotations of political messages are "colored" for particular audiences.)

Your awareness of these factors that enable–or constrain–your ability to draw valid inferences can help you begin to read beyond the words. The result will be greater empathy for the ideas of others and greater comprehension of complex topics.

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