Definition of Inference

Inference is the process of arriving at a conclusion using known evidence or premises and logically forming an opinion or interpretation. Inference is an important part of logic and reasoning, and is a key element of any syllogism. There can either be valid inferences, which are supported by the premises, or invalid inferences. An invalid or unsupported inference is also known as a fallacy.

The word inference comes from the Latin word inferre, which means “to bring, carry, or bear.” Thus the definition of inferences has the sense that someone brings to bear the information already presented to deduce an opinion or conclusion.

Common Examples of Inference

We use inference all the time in daily life. The following situations are examples of inference:

  • The sandwich you left on the table is gone. Crumbs lead to your dog’s bed, and a piece of meat hangs out of her mouth. You infer she has eaten the sandwich.
  • It is your five year anniversary of dating your boyfriend. He has brought you to a fancy restaurant and, after dessert, gets down on one knee. You infer that he is about to propose.
  • One of your coworkers has recently retired, leaving an opening. Your boss calls you into her office the next day, and you infer that you might be getting a promotion.

Note that in all of these situations, you might have arrived at the wrong conclusion. Your dog might have been framed; your boyfriend might be tying his shoe; your boss might be about to fire you. The ability to derive meaning from ambiguous situations is part of what makes us capable of high-level functioning and thinking.

Significance of Inference in Literature

Inference is a very important part of the reading experience. Authors rely on the ability of readers to use inference to understand symbolism, metaphors, themes, and underlying and implicit meaning. Readers find the experience of going through a text infinitely richer if they are able to use skills of inference to understand characters’ true motivations and the meaning of figurative language. Thus, examples of inference are commonplace in literature, as most authors want to challenge their readers just enough to come to conclusions themselves. This is also an important part of the dictum, “Show, don’t tell.” When authors show scenery and situations without explicitly telling their reading audience what is happening the writing is elevated and more pleasing to read.

At times, authors may also play with the inferences they assume the reader is making, especially in mysteries and thrillers. Authors will sometimes add a red herring, knowing that the reader will make a false inference and get waylaid from the real conclusion.

Examples of Inference in Literature

Example #1

Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare used much figurative language in his poetry and plays. In the tragedy of Othello, the character of Iago is extremely manipulative and cannot be trusted. Here Iago is using the strong imagery of “an old black ram…tupping your white ewe” to scare Desdemona’s father Brabantio. Iago relies on Brabantio inferring that Othello has destroyed Desdemona’s innocence.

Example #2

JIM: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?
LAURA: Now it is just like all the other horses.
JIM: It’s lost its—
LAURA: Horn! It doesn’t matter. . . . [smiling] I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!

(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)

In this example of inference, the characters of Laura and Jim discuss Laura’s glass unicorn, from which the horn has just broken off. Though they are talking about part of Laura’s glass menagerie, the reader is supposed to infer that Laura is also thinking of herself when she says the unicorn now feels less freakish.

Example #3

“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 . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This inference example provides us with the title to Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Miss Maudie and Atticus discuss why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird—because the creature is innocent and does nothing but make music. This is a symbol for the innocence of Boo Radley, and is the thematic heart of the novel—those who have power must protect the vulnerable.

Example #4

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
The girl did not say anything.
‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
‘Then what will we do afterwards?’
‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway uses very spare language in his style, and in the short story two unnamed characters are discussing something that they never make explicit. This is the genius of the story, and what they are discussing often escapes the first-time reader of the story. Hemingway requires the reader to make an inference to understand just why these two characters say the things they do to each other.

Example #5

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” asks the reader to infer his meaning about what the two roads symbolize. Frost finishes the poem with the lines “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” The reader is asked to think about what this means in his or her own life, and decide which road he or she has taken.

Example #6

It was about this time that the pigs suddenly moved into the farmhouse and took up their residence there…It was absolutely necessary, he said, that the pigs, who were the brains of the farm, should have a quiet place to work in. It was also more suited to the dignity of the Leader (for of late he had taken to speaking of Napoleon under the title of “Leader”) to live in a house than in a mere sty. Nevertheless, some of the animals were disturbed when they heard that the pigs not only took their meals in the kitchen and used the drawing-room as a recreation room, but also slept in the beds.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

There is one important and relatively obvious inference that the reader must make to understand George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. Orwell is not, of course, just writing about animals on a farm. Instead, he is using these characters to represent real figures from the Russian Revolution. Though Orwell doesn’t make this explicit, it’s the most important conclusion that the reader must come to to know what’s going on in the text.

Test Your Knowledge of Inference

1. Which of the following statements is the best inference definition?
A. A meaning that is made explicit by the author.
B. A conclusion that is not supported by the text.
C. The act of deriving a conclusion or opinion from the information presented.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” what do you think the two characters are talking about?
A. Abortion
B. Polio
C. Asthma

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Does the speaker agree with the neighbor that “Good fences make good neighbors”?
A. Yes
B. No
C. The speaker is not sure how he feels

Answer to Question #3 Show

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