Inference is, like, cool

One of the many slightly-dishonest things I have done as an English teacher is to encourage students to ‘spot’ what I have told them is ‘inference’ by looking for proper nouns and their derivatives. Here is an example:

1. your car is always breaking down – you should have bought German

I tell my students that this is inference because, in order to understand the comment, you need to have the extra-linguistic ‘cultural knowledge’ that German cars are generally considered very well made and reliable. I do this I because the idea of ‘cultural knowledge’ is often swirled about when inference is discussed by teachers, and I can generally bet that assessors and examiners will fall for it.

But inference as a term is much messier than this. In the fields of Philosophy and Logic, it has quite a strict definition, and refers to the way that conclusions can be derived from premises in a logically sound argument. In Linguistics, it is used with this meaning, but is also associated with a quite distinct term – implicature. Implicature has a lot in common with the related everyday term ‘imply’ – it refers to the way that, in real language situations, meaning is often communicated – implied – even though it cannot be logically inferred from the strictest interpretation of what is said. Thus, in the following example, we can logically infer that the person referred to did two things – he opened the door, and he lit a cigarette: 

1. He opened the car door and lit a cigarette

But it is also implied that these two things happened in a particular order – typically, when we use the conjunction ‘and’ to order two events, audiences assume that they happened in the order in which they were presented. Were someone to use this sentence to describe a situation in which the cigarette lighting had actually happened first, we could not say for certain that this person had said something untrue, just that they had – intentionally or not – misled us.

Thus, the two meanings of the word ‘infer’ – what can be logically concluded, and what meaning there is in addition to logical content – are pretty much entirely opposite! It is frankly baffling that this kind of terminological sloppiness occurs in fields – Logic, Linguistics, English studies – which all make a claim to be very attentive to the exact use of words. Because of this confusion, I think the use of the word ‘inference’ in English teaching circles ought to be avoided. To try and keep things clearer, I will from here on use the word ‘implicature’ to describe this kind of ‘extra’, non-logical meaning, the verb ‘imply’ to describe what the text or speaker/writer does when this happens, and the term ‘assume’ to describe what the reader or writer does in order to ‘get’ this kind of meaning. I shall reserve the logical term ‘entail’ to describe what can only be strictly logically concluded.

So where does this leave my ‘German’ example – is this a good example of implicature? Well, it depends on to what extent the various associations attached to the word ‘German’ can be said to be definitively ‘part’ of that word’s strict, logical meaning. Is the idea of ‘well-made’ clearly an essential part of the word ‘German’? If it is, then, my suggestion to my students that an implicature is being made seems a lot weaker, as can be seen from the following, equivalent sentence:

2. your car is always breaking down – you should have bought a well-made one

I think, on balance, that my example of implicature is not a bad one – while Germany may be associated with well-made cars, it is not essentially so. The listener has to do a certain amount of assuming to get what I’m at. As with many examples of implicature, the message assumed is drawn from the associations or connotations of a word, rather than its strict, logical meaning. 

But then, looking at the example further, it is possible to become doubtful again about where the line is to be drawn, exactly, between entailment and implicature. What exactly is logically entailed by the statement ‘you should have bought German’? Is our speaker committed to the idea that the car must actually be made in Germany? Or simply made by a German manufacturer? Probably, the second, though there is some ambiguity – maybe the geographic meaning is entailed, and the ‘manufacturer’ idea only implied? This kind of second guessing is what makes implicature such a powerful but frustrating topic, since the more we think about, the more we might start to ‘see’ it in a text. Because language itself is fuzzy ‘all the way down’, the exact boundary between what a text is entailing, and what it is merely implying, is fuzzy too.

My first dishonesty, therefore, lay in the implication (!?) that there is a clear and definitive line between these two types of meaning. I was also dishonest, however, in perpetuating the fiction that implicature is explained by drawing a contrast between ‘cultural’ and ‘linguistic’ knowledge. Indeed, one of the persistent themes of this book is that teachers need to catch up with the rather well-established idea that it is very difficult to disentangle knowledge and language. Implicature is much better understood as a way of categorising the various ways in which language means. But there was a third dishonesty: I also bamboozled my students in allowing them to believe that, even when an implicature is identified, there is clear and final answer about what exactly is being implied. 

As an example of this last point, I shall take some sentences from the 2020 Booker Prize winning novel, Shuggie Bain. In this excerpt, Lizzie, Shuggie’s grandmother, is talking to his mother, her daughter:

Lizzie narrowed her eyes at her grandson, at his blond dolly. “You’ll be needing that nipped in the bud, it’s no right”.

What exactly is implied by the narrowed eyed look that Lizzie gives Shuggie?. Implicature is no doubt at work here, since the writer does not explain the exact feeling behind the look. The following dialogue strongly suggests that ‘disapproval’ is in the mix, but does the implicature also perhaps encompass a personal dislike for the boy? Or maybe a more tender concern for him? The character of Lizzie is a tough Glaswegian grandmother, who clearly holds socially conservative views around gender. But she is also described in places as possessing a brave and kind consideration for others. It is, I think, essential undetermined quite how much her disapproval of his feminine ways ought to be coupled with an active dislike of him, and, relatedly, how much she might take him as being responsible for his actions (though of course, the following dialogue suggests she sees the mother as primarily responsible).

The exact cocktail of feelings and attitudes that lie behind those narrowed eyes is at least partly therefore a question of what I would call reader interpretation. I mean by this something that operates at a higher level than the ‘assuming’ that has been so far discussed, but which in many cases plays an important role in how the assuming happens. 

At an academic level, the question of what exactly is meant by ‘literary interpretation’ is highly controversial. Typically, school English teaching either hides this fact, or remains wilfully ignorant of it. Of course, school students can’t be expected to handle most of the sophisticated argument that goes on in universities, but I am convinced that they do have a right to know that what they are being taught to do is something that the ‘adults’ themselves argue about. To be clear, this does not mean teaching them that ‘there are no right answers’, but it does mean acknowledging that no teacher has the right to force students to accept as truth whichever particular answer it is that they subscribe to.

And it is possible to define interpretation in a way which is simple enough for practical school teaching, while keeping honest about its contested nature. This is by defining it as the process of explaining the significance of a text. The key flexibility here is in your understanding of the term ‘significance’. If a student feels that it means the author’s communicative intention, then they should pursue that line. If they take it to imply the text’s importance within a given contemporary social or philosophical debate, then so be it. If they think, on the other hand, that all significance flows from God, and therefore the only consistent interpretation of a text is one that takes into account such notions as sin and redemption, then they should be given the tools to make that case. In short, all these approaches to literary significance should be welcome in a secondary school English classroom, and all should be offered to students as ways of developing their thinking about both literary texts and art in general.

By adopting this notion of interpretation, along with a culture of diversity and contestation to teach it in, we ought to move on from grim and rigid ways of understanding how implicature works. Interpretation cannot in itself tell us what a single ambiguous instance of language ‘means’: it operates at the level of the whole text. But it does feed off meanings that are both entailed and implied and then in turn helps to guide and direct the reader in fixing what exactly might be assumed from ambigious points in the text. There is, and ought to be, a range of good answers as to the implications of Lizzie’s narrowed eyes in Shuggie Bain, and these answers will depend on the way on which the reader interprets both the bigotry of this character and the overall account offered by the book about gender bigotry in general.

It makes sense, therefore, to think of implicature as a persistent feature of all texts – not something that occasionally pops up – and to recognise that the meanings typically described as being implied are both ambiguous in themselves and, at times, shade into the more literal meanings they accompany.

Implicature is clearly a sophisticated concept, and not one that most students are actively taught about (even when using the confusing label ‘inference’), nor need to be taught about. To a certain extent, then, this discussion is so far academic when it comes to what might go on in the English classroom itself. However, when used as a ‘behind the scenes’ concept in English teaching, implicature has a powerful, usually negative, impact on all students, in at least two very common and important ways.

It is often invoked in the construction of reading comprehension tasks, which usually require students to answer multiple choice questions. The questions in these tests based on implicature tend to be the most difficult in these assessments. Indeed, in my less generous moments, I can’t help but feel that the term is recruited purely so that trickier questions can be produced. Very often, the ‘inference’ (as it is typically labelled by the assessors) type questions feel to teachers unfair, and this is because the concept, as we have seen, is a murky business, quite unsuitable for multiple choice questions of this sort.

To return to the Shuggie Bain example, it would be too easy for the students to identify disapproval as the reason for the narrowing of Lizzie’s eyes, and so test compliers are tempted in cases such as these to impose their own interpretation of the book on the students, and, upping the ante, to ask them to identify the deep psychology of the character concerned. But, for the reasons I explained above, this approach just isn’t fair, being a misuse of literary interpretation. It effectively uses ‘inference’ as an entrance point to enforce a single ‘correct’ interpretation of the text into the task.

We should avoid asking students to ‘identify’ an ‘example’ of implicature, and instead ask them to look for places where it plays a particularly strong role. We should accept that, in even in relatively clear and explicit texts, students may successfully identify examples of implicature that we ourselves have missed. And we should accept that there may be a range of possible answers as to the meaning which is implied. When framing multiple choice questions in particular, teachers and assessors should be extremely vigilant about the danger of mistaking their particular interpretation for the ‘true’ meaning of the text, because schools and teachers should not be bullying students into accepting ‘their’ view of what is fundamentally most significant.

These kind of questions are frustrating because they are potentially so demotivating and humiliating to students and teachers, sapping confidence in their capacity to understand not just texts, but the broader world around them (which is typically understood and thought about through text). They are, I fear, the result of the utopian thinking of policy makers and administrators who relentlessly demand ‘correct’ answers so that worldly shape may be given to their muddled notion of educational ‘progress’.

Implicature is also an issue in teaching creative writing, in the guise of the somewhat tiresome slogan ‘show not tell’. Like most pedagogical slogans, this directive has its basis in some good sense. The pleasure of reading prose fiction is partly a pleasure of escapism: a world is conjured up for the reader, and, like the real world, this fictional virtual reality does not come ready packaged with meaning and explanation. The show-not-tell dictum captures the notion that good fiction seduces its readers, rather than lectures to them. It is a response to those naive writers who attempt to explain too much to their readers, and so deny them the pleasure of a descriptive experience which is open, at least in part, to their interpretation. Thus, writers are enjoined to ensure that such deeper meaningful notions as a character’s feelings or their own value judgements about their characters are only implied. In the example above, Lizzie’s disapproval (and, potentially, her feelings) was merely implied – shown – by the description of her narrowed-eye look.

But good fiction also, and somewhat paradoxically, has the power to write meanings into the worlds it describes which is not present in our real experience – with what, in other worlds, is told. In some cases at least, the pleasure and significance of reading fiction is precisely the opposite from that outlined above: it is the sensation of being given exactly the kind of insight and understanding that is denied us in ordinary experience. A related aim in fiction is the construction of an authorial style, or voice, which in many cases is achieved only because  of the way it inscribes deeper meaning and understandings into the fictional world being described – through artful and considered tellings.

With considerations of this sort, the show-not-tell dictum breaks down, and a more nuanced and productive notion of an implication spectrum can take its place. Writers select a ‘level’ of implicature for any given clauses, paragraph or text, and they do so because, at that particular point, their style and intent requires just that level of implicature. Student writers should thus be urged and encouraged to consider, not whether they ave committed the deadly sin of ‘telling’, but whether they have thought enough about how much they want to tell, and how much to show, at any given point of the text, as well as overall. This kind of reflection, rooted in a sense of spectrum, choice, and freedom, is how implicature can be reinvented as a positive spur to creativity, and not its deadening and demotivating enemy.    

%d bloggers like this: