Inference questions tend to be among the most challenging types of Reading Comprehension questions on the SAT. Instead of testing your understanding of what is in the text, inference questions test your understanding of what isn’t in the text.
Correct answers to these questions are, however, directly implied by what the author states explicitly. If you think logically and carefully, there is no reason for this type of question to be prohibitively difficult.
Imagine that you read an ad that says, “Unlike our competitor’s yogurt, ours is organic.” The implied meaning is obviously that “our competitor’s yogurt is not organic.” This little mental “flip” is an essential skill for SAT inference questions.
For example, consider this extremely brief passage: All terrichnoderms are classified by biologists as members of the phylum Aeridae. As opposed to members of the phylum Aeridae, phractopods do not have tails that can be used for balance, stability, and navigation.
That’s all the information you get. Below is an example of a question that can be answered with only the two facts above, and no outside information.
Which of the following can be inferred from the passage?
A. Because geckos have tails that can be used for balance, stability, and navigation, they are members of the phylum Aeridae
B. Because phractopods do not have tails, their balance and navigation abilities are less developed than those of animals in the phylum Aeridae
C. Terrichnoderms were not always classified by biologists as members of the phylum Aeridae
D. Terrichnoderms have tails that can be employed for stabilizing and balancing
Whoa, that’s kind of hard! Do not make wild guesses. Instead, go back and organize the information in this passage. You can use “T” for terrichnoderms, “A” for Aeridae, and “P” for phractopods.
You are first told “All T are A.” Easy.
Then, you are told, “As opposed to A, P do not have tails that can be used for balance, stability, and navigation.” So, when the passage says, “As opposed to A, P do NOT have these kinds of tails,” it means that members of A DO have these kinds of tails.
The passage is deliberately feeding you a particular conclusion - a conclusion that must be true based on the information in the passage. Next, go through the answers one by one:
A. You do know that “A” have tails that can be used for balance, stability, and navigation, but you do N O T know that anything that has such a tail is therefore “A”. (For instance, all mammals have bones, but not everything with bones is a mammal). Incorrect.
B. You don’t know this! All you are told is that “phractopods do not have tails that can be used for balance, stability, and navigation.” Maybe they DO have tails (the tails just can’t be used for balance, stability, and navigation). And, of course, they might have other, perfectly good body parts (other than tails) that they can use for balance and navigation. You can’t infer things you just weren’t told. Incorrect.
C. You have absolutely no information about the history of biologists’ classifications of anything. Perhaps you could argue that many thousands of years ago, there were no biologists, and thus biologists could not have classified T as A, but that idea is just not based on the passage. Incorrect.
D. You wrote at the bottom of your diagram that, “A have tails that can be used for balance, stability, and navigation.” Answer choice D is about T, though, not A. But wait a minute! Your diagram says, “All T are A”! If all T are A, and A have these special tails, then T have these special tails! (This is like the transitive property in math!) This answer is a direct match with the information in the passage. Correct.
FYI: There’s no such thing as a terrichnoderm, a phractopod, or a phylum called Aeridae. It is all made up in order to show you that you can succeed simply by organizing the information you were given. Just to be clear, the SAT does not make up information - the makers of the exam pull the information from published sources. Here, I was just making a point.
An inference sticks pretty closely to the facts. To infer for SAT purposes is to use only the information in the passage in order to draw a conclusion that cannot be wrong.
When answering an inference question, the following are indicators of a wrong answer:
- Answers that are probably true (but not definitely)
- Answers that require additional assumptions
That is, drawing an inference is NOT the same as making an assumption about something that a normal person would assume is probably true. Making assumptions will get you a wrong answer! Picking something that is probably true will also get you a wrong answer!
So, what kind of conclusion could you possibly draw from an SAT passage, using only the information in the passage and not assuming anything? A really boring, trivial, not very insightful one. Seriously.
For instance, if a teacher tells you “Joey failed the test.” What can you infer? That Joey didn’t study? No, maybe he did study and still failed. That the test was hard? Not necessarily. The only thing you can infer is that Joey did not pass the test.
That’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? But it certainly isn’t wrong. Try to argue with “Joey did not pass the test.” You can’t. That’s why it’s an inference.
By the way, not every inference question uses the word infer. Many questions use words such as suggest or imply. For purposes of the SAT, treat all these questions the same way: pick an answer choice that has to be true based on the relevant information from the passage.
In the early 1940s, women’s participation in the U.S. labor market changed dramatically as a result of the labor shortages resulting from the drafting of men to fight in World War II. While persistent and institutionalized discrimination had discouraged women from paid work in the Depression era, the wartime government used patriotic propaganda to encourage women to work in defense industries. While women’s employment was still viewed as an extraordinary measure for extraordinary times - and the woman worker as merely filling in for “some soldier” to whom the job properly belonged - gender barriers were lowered somewhat during this period, and pay began to equalize. Despite these moves towards women’s participation in the workforce, however, shifting forces in the postwar labor market meant that fewer American women worked outside the home in 1952 than in 1942.
1. Which of the following can be inferred regarding women’s employment during the period discussed in the passage?
A. Discrimination against women in the workplace increased between 1942 and 1952
B. Women’s job qualifications decreased during the period 1942-1952
C. The end of World War II caused many men to come home and take back jobs they had once held
D. More women worked outside the home in 1942 than ten years later
What do you know from the passage? Not much: fewer women worked in 1952 than in 1942, and the cause of this is “shifting forces in the postwar labor market.” You need to pick an answer choice that MUST be true, based on only those facts. You should examine the choices.
A. We have no way to know this. We are told that employment decreased during that period, but you don’t know why. INCORRECT.
B. Again, we have no way to know. We’re told that employment decreased during that period, but not why. INCORRECT.
C. This is a trap. We’re told that the drop in employment is due to “shifting forces in the postwar labor market,” and the idea of men coming back from war and taking back jobs is certainly consistent with that, but consistent isn’t enough. The answer choice may be true, but it’s not the answer to the question because we cannot infer it from the information in the passage. INCORRECT.
D. If fewer women worked in 1952 than in 1942, then MORE women worked in 1942 than in 1952. That’s a pretty trivial observation. But it MUST be true, based only on the information in the passage. That’s why it’s the answer. CORRECT.
Once you get the hang of drawing inferences, you can do it very quickly and easily. For instance, what can you infer from this sentence? In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to pass a Constitution codifying the rights of nature.
The inference is essentially this: Prior to 2008, no nation had passed a Constitution codifying the rights of nature. You could even infer something like this: As of 2007, the United States Constitution did not codify the rights of nature. That’s kind of random, but definitely true based only on the information presented.
Here’s another Example: Because of monumental shifts in the social behavior the researcher studied in the 1970s, the researcher’s methodology has proved to be of more lasting value than her results.
It might be helpful to paraphrase the original information first. Maybe something like, Since a lot has changed since the ‘70s, the researchers methodology is still valuable, but the results are less valuable. The inference is something like, “The results are out of date.”
Important: Make sure that you pay close attention to negatively phrased answer choices or answers that contain double negatives (e.g., not impossible = possible). Unless you carefully work out what this type of wording actually means, it can very easy confused you.
This tip is important because one of the easiest ways to create a valid inference is to rewrite the original statement from a different angle. For example, if a passage states that a star is much older than the Earth, a valid inference is that the star is not younger than the Earth.
Lastly, as with all reading questions, it is vital to predict an answer before you look at the answer options to avoid getting confused. This particularly important for inference questions.
Follow these steps to follow when tackling an inference question:
- Find the right part of the passage and read it, underlining clue words that relate to the question
- Predict possible answers by making logical inferences
- Eliminate wrong answers, looking out for ones that go too far, are too specific, use outside knowledge, or mix up information
- Pick the correct answer! It will be very close to what the passage says