Advances in Written Text Analysis

By Malcolm Coulthard | Go to book overview

11

Inferences in discourse comprehension

Martha Shiro

Although many scholars in different disciplines—logic, psychology, linguistics—have shown an interest in inferencing, very few studies concern themselves with the inferential process in connected discourse. Even then, the inferences studied are generally those made by the analyst him/herself or those generated by isolated sentences. Very few studies analyse the inferences actually drawn by different individuals.

One of the assumptions behind the analysis of isolated sentences is that the inferences drawn from a text will be the sum of the inferences drawn on its corresponding sentences. Another assumption is that skilful readers make basically the same inferences. Thus, variation in inferencing is attributed to differences in readers’ abilities in text processing. However, as will be shown below, neither of these assumptions can be supported when actual readers are observed. The majority of the inferences drawn from a text are the result of combining textual elements with themselves and/or with contextual elements. Hence the interpretation of the whole differs from the interpretation of each element in isolation (i.e. taken out of context). Similarly, in addition to readers’ abilities, there are other variables which account for different interpretations, for example the reader’s previous knowledge, reading purpose, motivation or concentration.

A text takes shape (or different shapes) in the reader’s mind during the reading process. A textual world is being built by combining textual information with inferences to form a coherent whole. In this view, inferences are understood as information that is necessarily added to textual information in order to create new meaning.

The analyst faces certain difficulties in the study of inferences. For example, inferences are elusive because once they have been drawn they do not appear to be inferences any more. It is difficult for the reader (and it is not required in the reading process) to discriminate between what is stated explicitly and what is inferred. The reader becomes aware of the need to draw an inference only when his/her interpretation requires unusual effort. A further problem for the analyst is that inferences are the outcome of textual interpretation but, by definition, they are not present in the text. The analyst must, therefore, investigate how the text is used as input by the reader

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