The Skill of Inference
Oftentimes in Paper 2, you are asked to answer questions which require you to infer the author’s intentions, feelings or attitudes towards the subject that he or she is writing about in the passage. But what exactly is inference? How do you go about inferring? I have a number of students who frequently stumble at such questions, but I tell them that the skill of inference is not that difficult to pick up and apply.
Inference basically is making a guess. A logical, reasonable guess. Will the answer be staring at you from the passage? (Like direct paraphrasing questions…but that’s for another entry) No. Writers seldom say things like, “I am totally against this topic, so I am writing in such a manner” or “I approve of this issue, so this is my attitude”. So how would you know how the writer feels or what he intends? In class, I like to use this example which was told to me by my teacher trainer in NIE and which I never forgot till today. Let’s say you have been sitting in a room doing your homework for the past 2 hours, and this room has no windows. I walk in, half-drenched and carrying a wet umbrella. Now what can you infer about the weather outside? I am guessing most would answer that it is raining outdoors. But how did you know this since there are no windows and I certainly didn’t walk in carrying a sign saying ‘It’s raining outside’? You probably inferred it from my drenched state and the wet umbrella. So these become the evidence or clues we use to reach a reasonable conclusion. And this is what inference is all about. In fact, we engage in inference more in our everyday life that we know, like for instance, when someone asks us for a glass of water, we infer straightaway that he or she is thirsty.
Can inferences be wrong? Of course! In the above scenario, I could have been thrown water by a prankster or been acting in a drama serial with raining scenes. But the more reasonable and logically acceptable inference – given the available evidence – would be our first inference: that it is raining outside. So how do you use the skill of inference in Paper 2? Well, you look at the words he uses; the punctuation marks he chooses; the literary devices he employs. You attempt to read between the lines, or as I teach my students, to ‘go behind the words on paper’ to ‘hear’ the voice of the writer. This is a very useful technique which makes inferring easier and more interesting, as we suss out all kinds of funny and crazy possibilities sometimes! =)