Episode 12 Issues 2: Issues and Inferences
In the final episode of this series, Nick and Dave discuss inferences. When is a descriptive statement really a prescriptive claim?
Dave: You are listening to Critically Minded.
Nick: The podcast for English learners who want to become better critical thinkers. We’re your hosts, Nick . . .
Dave: And Dave. In this episode we want to discuss issues and inferences. An inference is a statement that is not spoken directly, because the speaker may be embarrassed or does not want to be impolite. Communicating in another language involves more than just understanding vocabulary and knowing grammar. It involves understanding indirect communication that is part of the culture where that language is spoken.
Nick: Think about your own culture. Do people in your country always say what they think? Or do they use language in a way that makes criticism and negative comments softer and less direct? There are ways that people in any culture switch from direct statements to inferences when the situation calls for it.
Dave: And one of the ways people do this is by making statements that look like questions involving descriptive issues, but are really prescriptive statements. If you can recognize when someone is making a prescriptive inference while using descriptive issue indicator words, then you can understand how important critical thinking is in common casual conversation.
Nick: Japanese often feel that westerners are more direct than Japanese. And to a certain extent that may be true. But that doesn’t mean that westerners are always direct in their communication. I know that when my wife says, “Are you going to wear that shirt? It’s not a question, but by putting her remark in the form of a question, she’s telling me—not asking, but telling me—to change what I am wearing. In order to understand what a speaker truly wants to say, sometimes we have to think about the words he or she has used.
Dave: And if I told you that a high percentage of fatal highway accidents are caused every year by people driving over the speed limit, in the rain, at night, while drinking alcohol and not wearing their safety belts, that would be a descriptive statement.
Nick: Sure. You’re just telling me a statistical fact.
Dave: But if I tell you this statistical fact while I’m sitting in the passenger seat of your car at 2:00 a.m. during a rainstorm, and you’re driving at 120 kilometers per hour while drinking scotch straight from the bottle, what I’m really saying is that you that you should pull over and let me drive.
Nick: And if not just stop and let me out.
Dave: You may remember about ten episodes earlier, we discussed unspoken statements and hidden premises. This is similar to that except here, it is the conclusion that is unspoken. And the premise, while spoken, is often expressed as a question. For example, say Nick, did you know that tomorrow night there is going to be a lunar eclipse? The earth’s shadow will pass directly in front of the moon. It’s happening at about 8:30 p.m. My friends and I are going to watch it together. Would you like to join us?
Nick: That sounds really interesting, but I have university faculty party with some other teachers tomorrow night. So, I’ll be indoors all evening and won’t be able to see the sky.
Dave: That’s too bad. You should make an excuse and join us.
Nick: I’d love to, but I don’t think the university president would like that.
Dave: Ahh Nick, how often do you get the chance to see a lunar eclipse?
Nick: So listeners, what David has just done is to ask a question that is not really a question. He doesn’t really want to know how often I get the chance to see a lunar eclipse. If I thought that was a question, I would estimate how long I will live, about 80 years if I’m lucky, then I might look at the Internet and find that in this part of Japan, between the years 1960 and 2040 there is an average of two or three lunar eclipses each year. So to answer David’s question:
Dave: How often do you get the chance to see a lunar eclipse?
Nick: I could say, “Oh about two or three times a year?”
Dave: Or I could say, “Ahh Nick, how many eclipses do you get to see in your life?”
Nick: To which I might say, “Well 80 years times 2.5 eclipses a year is 200, so David I could get to see about 200, if I tried.”
Dave: But I’m not really asking Nick to do all that math.
Nick: Bet you were surprised I could though!
Dave: Well yeah, but . . . In fact, when I say, “How often do you get the chance to see an eclipse?” or “How many times do you get to see an eclipse?” what I am really saying is that an eclipse is an unusual event that is very exciting to see. And moreover, I am saying that Nick should see the eclipse, even if he has to make the president of his university angry.
Nick: And we all know that saying somebody should do something is making a prescriptive statement. This kind of communication is called making an inference. We infer when we hint at something without saying it directly. We should also point out that an inference does not have to be expressed as a question.
Dave: Instead of saying How many times or How often, which are both questions, I could say, “Ahh Nick. It’s not every day that you get to see a lunar eclipse.”
Nick: It would be very strange if there were an eclipse every night. And if there were, nobody would think eclipses were interesting. But because eclipses are unusual, they are interesting and desirable to see.
Dave: We should also point out that inferences are not always prescriptive. Inferences can also be descriptive.
Nick: Good point, David. And we covered that in our episode on hidden premises.
Dave: So to summarize, prescriptive statements can sometimes sound very neutral. Speakers can use neutral language, while really communicating a prescriptive message about something that is very positive, like seeing an eclipse, or negative, like wearing a shirt that your wife doesn’t like.
Nick: If you think about communication critically, within the context of the situation, you will understand the true intent of the speaker. We call this “reading between the lines.” It means that you are able to understand the face-value of what is being spoken, AND to form hypotheses about what the speaker really means. For example––
Dave: Uh, Nick, do you know how long we’ve been recording this episode?
Nick: Ahh—I think David is inferring that we should end the episode here. So for now, this has been Critically Minded: Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners.
Episode 12 Issues 2: Issues and Inferences