Are inferred meanings and implied meanings the same thing?
On face of it, these two definitions are pretty similar (or in fact, the same). It’s the old “read between the lines” mantra we use so much in English.
But perhaps they aren’t exactly the same.
An inferred meaning is a conjuncture or a theory – it could be that more than one idea is inferred. We use deduction from the evidence available to draw a conclusion. We may disagree. We may be wrong. Or right.
One of the problems with inference in literature is that most of the writers we study are dead and so we can’t ask them if our deductions are accurate or not.
Take Curley’s Wife for example:
Steinbeck describes her as ‘a girl’ – the different theories about what can inferred from this include her innocence and contrastingly her immaturity. Our choice of which theory is correct is shaped by our own person bias.
Depending on our reading of the rest of the paragraph (or novel) we may create conclusions and stick with them.
We don’t know for a fact what John Steinbeck was implying. We can infer an idea. We cannot state a truth.
Implication seems a little more solid than inference. Implication hints of facts and truths, of rights and wrongs.
Take Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. It often prompts much debate. Is the governess mad or are the ghosts real? If you’re looking for a text that is ripe for inference – look no further than this crooked tale.
Yet, when asked about the different theories, James himself only ever referred to the story as ‘a nice little potboiler’. He never outright declared allegiance to either side, but the truth is implied by this statement – he needed to make money, and quickly after the disaster of Guy Domville, The Turn of the Screw served its purpose. The implication being that James did not consciously take the time and thought needed to design a complex psychological tale.
That’s one of the reasons why I love him – his genius was as repressed as the rest of him.
Back to inference and implication – it’s not trick of fate that my example for implication was real-life. Implication – being intrinsically linked to fact – is more likely to be needed with real-world texts.
As I tackle more and more non-fiction in my classroom, I find myself asking “what is the implication here?” not “what is inferred?”.
Yet I don’t, or least wasn’t, teaching it.
When reading and studying non-fiction texts we often read them at surface level for fact alone and skip forward to spotting rhetorical techniques.
Take this example from the CIE Paper 3 in June last year.
The Directed Writing paper expects top band students to be able to tackle the facts of the article and its implied meanings.
The facts presented here are clear – extinction of some species is expected, and it can be avoided, in part, by protecting these species in zoos and safari parks.
What are the implied meanings here?
This is a little more tricky – the writer mentions sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths which became extinct due to the Quaternary extinction event, not caused by humans. Actually I’m not sure that’s what happened to sabre-toothed tigers – but I’m in an exam hall and can hardly google it.
One implication could be that in the past animals have become extinct due to natural causes (survival of the fittest), whereas today, the increasing demands of the human population are causing early or unnecessary extinction events (survival of the fittest mark 2).
In addition to that, the comparison between the protection of species in zoos and visiting them in their natural habitats again seems open to us drawing some kind of conclusion. Perhaps that the suggestion within the text seems to be wholly focussed on the human experience and does not value the needs to wild animals to live in the wild.
You can see how hard these conclusions are to draw. Particularly in one hour in an exam room and on a subject that you have little or no knowledge of.
So, how do we teach students to find the implied meanings in non-fictions texts?
There is no magic bullet, there doesn’t need to be. As soon as this became a conscious need – it shaped my questioning and the quality of tasks that I set.
Yet the outcomes were immense, a quality of understanding and interpretation of non-fiction that exceeded basic factual knowledge. A thoroughness of thought.
The pace of my lessons reduced though. This is the kind of thinking that hurts the first few times. Hurts a lot. But that’s good.
Here are some of the ways we look for implied meanings in my classroom:
- You can’t fault a thirst for knowledge. Encourage a real passion for knowledge of the world we live in.
- Get doing it. Together first. Exactly the same as inference in fiction – short extracts, modelled time and again.
- Set non-fiction texts as reading homeworks, looking for implied meaning.
Again – initially with guided questions, then with no prompts at all.
- Watch the news, listen to the radio, speak to your friends – communication is full of implied meanings. Get finding them.
Ok, here’s your homework. Implied meanings?
It turns out the sometimes semantics can make you a better teacher.
I will upload some of my starters after the weekend.
Thank you for reading.