Mastering SAT Reading Inference Questions

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Identifying SAT Reading Inference Questions

SAT Reading Inference Questions are one of the more difficult question types. Though these questions can be hard to solve, identifying them is usually straightforward. If you see any of the following phrases in an SAT Reading question, you’re dealing with an inference question:

“It can reasonably be inferred …”

“It can most reasonably be inferred …”

“… implies that … “

“… most clearly implies …”

“… is implicit … “

Note – On SAT Reading, the phrase “most likely” does not indicate an inference question. That phrase belongs to the “weasel words” category and should be disregarded.

Solving Inference Questions

When I teach my ACT and SAT test prep students about the importance of always using Hyper-Literal Reading, one of the first things they ask is, “But what about inference questions? Isn’t inferring the opposite of being literal?”

Yes and no. At school, in English class, when your teacher asks you to draw inferences from a text, it’s true that they are usually inviting you to engage in subjective interpretation. The basic idea is to “engage” with the text and come up with your own take.

Different teachers have varying standards about how creative their students can be with such subjective interpretation. But these days many English teachers’ primary concern is encouraging their students to “engage” with the text in a way that “makes it meaningful” to them. Thus, modern teachers tend to take an open-minded approach to inference, allowing their students a lot of freedom to interpret the text subjectively.

The makers of the SAT (and ACT) know very well that schools are training students to adopt a very imaginative, conjectural, even freewheeling style of drawing inferences. The test makers know that, in the typical English classroom, the focus is not on the meaning of the text in any objective sense. Rather, what’s often stressed is what the text means to the particular student. (BTW, this is why many teachers encourage students to preface their comments on a text with the phrase “I feel …” Using the qualifier “I feel” is a way of telling the other students – and the teacher – that your inference is merely a personal opinion, not a provable statement of fact.)

The College Board exploits the subjective, interpretive approach to inferring commonly taught in schools. SAT Reading maintains a strictly literal standard for drawing inferences, of course without warning you that it is doing so (i.e., the test doesn’t inform you that “inference” means something different on SAT Reading than it does in a typical English class). But this isn’t merely a sly deception. Because the SAT is a standardized, multiple choice exam, the correct answers can’t be a matter of subjective interpretation. They must be provably correct according to an objective standard. Also, the wrong answers must be provably incorrect according to that same objective standard. This holds just as true for Inference Questions as it does for every other question type.

To solve SAT Reading Inference Questions, you must understand that there are two types of inferences. There’s the normal kind of inference, the type of inference you’re usually expecting to make in English class, which we discussed above. We call these Reasonable Inferences. But there’s also a more strictly literal type of inference. We call these Necessary Inferences. As you’ve probably guessed, Necessary Inferences are the only types of inferences allowed on SAT Reading.

Defining The Two Types of Inferences

Here are the definitions for the two types of inferences:

Reasonable Inference:

A Reasonable Inference is an idea that the passage does not directly state but that might reasonably be true, based on what the passage does directly state.

Necessary Inference:

A Necessary Inference is an idea that the passage does not directly state but that must logically be true, based on what the passage does directly state.

Examples of Reasonable and Necessary Inferences

Reasonable Inferences

Imagine you’re reading a story in English class, and you come across the following description of the main character:

All of the man’s clothes were purple.”

Let’s say your teacher asked you to draw some inferences about this odd description. Though your teacher probably wouldn’t say so, she would be expecting Reasonable Inferences. Even though we don’t have any context to work with, many students would still be able to offer up some inferences.

What types of inferences might you make from the above description that all the man’s clothes were purple? Maybe purple is his favorite color? Maybe he has to wear purple for work? Or perhaps the description is symbolic. What could the color purple symbolize? Royalty? Wealth? Calm? Foppishness? The list of Reasonable Inferences could go on. And, in English class, it’s likely that any or even all of them would be deemed acceptable.

And, on SAT Reading, you’d likely find some of the above inferences in the answer choices. However, they would all be WRONG. That’s because, on SAT Reading, the correct answer to an Inference Question must *always be a Necessary Inference.

Necessary Inferences

Consider the description again: “All of the man’s clothes were purple.”

Can you think of any NECESSARY inferences? That is, can you come up with any inferences that aren’t merely things that reasonably might be true, but that logically must be true?

It’s hard. When I present my test prep students with this question, they often struggle, then come up with something like, “Purple was the color of the man’s clothing.” But that’s not an inference at all. It’s just a rearrangement of the words in the original sentence. (Remember: according to the above definitions, an inference is an idea that is not stated in the text.) Sometimes, students will instead respond with, “The man is wearing purple.” The problem with that one is that it’s not necessarily true, since nothing in the original description says that the man wears his own clothes. For all we know, he refuses to wear his own clothes and instead borrows from someone else’s wardrobe!

Read the description once again: “All of the man’s clothes were purple.”

Here is an example of a true Necessary Inference: “None of the man’s shirts were green.”

The original description made no direct mention of the man’s shirts, nor did it say anything about the color green. So, this is an inference according to our definition, because it contains ideas that aren’t directly stated in the text. And not only that – it’s also a necessary inference, since it must logically be true. If all the man’s clothes are purple, it is necessarily true that none of his shirts are green (and that none of his pants are orange, etc.). This isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s not someone’s take. It’s as inescapable and factually provable as “2 + 2 = 4.” As long as we’re residing in the rational world, it’s a Necessary Inference.

Now, imagine if, when your English teacher asked you to offer some inferences based on “all the man’s clothes were purple,” you raised your hand and said, “Well, I kind of feel like that means none of his socks are yellow.” What kind of response would you get from your teacher and the other students in class? They’d probably think you were making a joke! That’s goes to show you how different Necessary Inferences are from Reasonable Inferences. It’s just one of the ways in which you must make a radical paradigm shift in order to reach your highest potential score on SAT Reading!

A Note on Inference Question Wording

Given the wording of SAT Reading Inference Questions, it may seem strange that you are only allowed to make Necessary Inferences, not Reasonable Inferences. After all, don’t the questions explicitly ask you to draw inferences that are reasonable?

They most certainly do. Recall how this question type is commonly worded:

It can reasonably be inferred …”

It can most reasonably be inferred …”

If SAT Reading doesn’t want us to draw Reasonable Inferences, why does it ask us to draw Reasonable Inferences???

The writers of the SAT are playing language games. Here’s how it works: All Necessary Inferences are, by definition, also reasonable. That is, if an inference isn’t merely possibly true but rather must be true, it is of course reasonable to make that inference. However, not all Reasonable Inferences are “necessary.” That is, it’s not the case that all reasonable inferences must be true.

This logic is quite convenient for the test writers. Because Necessary Inferences are a subset (i.e., a type) of Reasonable Inferences, the SAT writers get to word their questions in a way that makes it sound like there’s nothing unusual going on, that you’re just supposed to draw inferences in the same way you would in English class.

Exceptions to the Rule

*There are two exceptions to the rule that, on Inference Questions, the correct answer must always be a Necessary Inference:

  1. The correct answer can be a mere Reasonable Inference if all of the other answer choices are unreasonable. For example, let’s say that someone, given the description, “All the man’s clothes were purple,” inferred that “Chocolate ice cream tastes terrible.” Is that even reasonable? No! It bears no logical relationship whatsoever to the color of the man’s clothes. If you had three answer choices like that, and the only remaining answer choice was merely a Reasonable Inference, it would be correct. This happens very rarely on SAT Reading.
  2. SAT Reading sometimes requires you to “infer” a logical relationship between two adjoining sentences. For example, consider these two adjoining sentences: “Edmund was overjoyed. His test scores were in the 99th percentile.” Nowhere in those two sentences does it explicitly say that the reason Edmund was happy was because of his high test scores. But, on SAT Reading, we can “infer” the transition word “because.” Note – this is only allowed when the sentences are adjoining (i.e., next to each other).

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