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Clear and Effective Communication: Reducing the Level of Inference

Emmanuelle Samson
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 2, 2008, page 13)

As a writer, you should know that all readers have their own "personal encyclopedia," in other words, their own general, cultural and linguistic knowledge. But did you know that this "encyclopedia" plays a key role in how well someone understands texts?

Someone reading your text may interpret the message differently from the way you do. Or worse, your reader might not have the knowledge required to understand the message. These are two scenarios that could come about if you fail to sufficiently reduce the level of inference in a text before it goes out.

Inference

Inference is a mental operation that allows readers to deduce what is not said or what is implied in a text by drawing on their knowledge of the world, from their "personal encyclopedia." What may seem implicit to the writer is not always implicit to the readers. The readers infer meaning by assimilating the information presented in the text and then making logical connections using their own store of knowledge.

Let’s look at an example:

Mrs. Smith paid the young man who repaired the pipes in her house.

In your opinion, who is this "young man"? Did you infer that he was a plumber? Several things point to this conclusion. Drawing on your personal knowledge, perhaps you made connections between the verb "to pay," the expression "to repair pipes" and your definition of plumber: a person who does plumbing for pay.

But this is not the only possible inference. Some of you may have inferred that the young man was the neighbour’s son who knows a lot about plumbing. Others may have inferred something totally different. Since the sentence does not provide any answer to the question, each person makes his or her own deduction. As you can see, when you infer, you interpret the message.

More importantly, inference can have undesirable consequences in informational texts and particularly in government texts. Because it impedes clarity and may mislead the reader, inference should be limited or eliminated in these types of texts.

Levels of inference

The level of inference in a sentence or a text may be low, moderate or high. To avoid any ambiguity, you must reduce it to a minimum so that each sentence has only one possible interpretation.

Low level of inference

It’s always best to ensure that your texts have a low level of inference. Then the vast majority of readers will understand them.

When the level of inference is low, readers do not always need additional information to understand the message. For example:

Mr. White was born in British Columbia near the ocean.

If the readers know that the ocean bordering British Columbia is the Pacific Ocean, they will unconsciously make the inference. Because of the words "British Columbia" and "ocean," they automatically make the link with Pacific Ocean. For most Canadians, this inference is so low that they don’t even pause to ask themselves this question when they are reading the sentence.

If the ocean bordering British Columbia were not part of the readers’ own personal encyclopedia, they would nevertheless grasp the meaning of the sentence. Indeed, they would understand the overall context, that is, Mr. White was born near a vast expanse of water.

Such a low level of inference is entirely acceptable because it does not create any ambiguity. It is possible, however, to completely eliminate it by naming the ocean:

Mr. White was born in British Columbia near the Pacific Ocean.

Moderate level of inference

A certain number of readers may have difficulty grasping a moderate level of inference:

The officer will contact the person receiving the pension. The recipient must answer all the questions that the officer asks him or her.

Some readers might wonder if the person receiving the pension is the recipient. This would be obvious to some readers; others would wonder. Some readers may come to the wrong conclusion, thinking that two different people are involved.

To reduce the level of inference in this passage, the writer could avoid the term "recipient":

The officer will contact the person receiving the pension, who must answer all the questions that the officer asks him or her.

If the writer is concerned that the term "recipient" will not be understood, he or she could explain it:

The officer will contact the recipient, which is to say the person receiving the pension. The recipient must answer all the questions that the officer asks him or her.

High level of inference

When the level of inference is high, the majority of readers will not be able to deduce the meaning of the sentence by drawing on their store of personal knowledge. Specialized knowledge will generally be required to understand this type of message:

A number of cities have decided to ban idling within their limits.

What is "idling"? If the readers do not know, they may arrive at different interpretations. The message will not make any sense.

To reduce the level of inference, the technical term should be avoided or defined:

A number of cities have decided that, within their limits, citizens may no longer leave engines running when their vehicles are stationary.

OR

A number of cities have decided to ban idling within their limits, which means that citizens may no longer leave engines running when their vehicles are stationary.

Always keep in mind that the level of inference in your texts will vary according to your target audience: a level of inference that is considered to be low by specialized readers may be considered to be high by uninitiated readers. As a writer, you need to ensure that the level of inference is not an obstacle to understanding your texts. You can achieve this by being concrete and explicit.