Making Inferences


Sherlock Holmes

The famous detective Sherlock Holmes was a master of deduction.

A typical Sherlock Holmes story starts with Holmes meeting someone and quickly inferring a lot about them.

Here is an example from the story "A Scandal in Bohemia." The narrator is Watson, a doctor who often assists Holmes on his cases.

Holmes looked at me with his sharp, keen eyes and greeted me with a smile. He seemed relaxed, with his long, bony body stretched out on his favorite old sofa. I found myself at ease again as I breathed in the musty air of his parlor, where we had gone over the details of so many cases together. Then he spoke. "I see you are enjoying marriage, Watson," he said. "I would say you've gained seven and half pounds since I saw you last. I also see that you have returned to your practice as a medical doctor. I'm sorry you were caught in the rain recently. And equally sorry that you have a careless servant at home."

"My dear Holmes," I said with surprise. "I have put on seven pounds since I saw you last. And I was caught in a downpour in the country last Thursday. You are correct in thinking my wife and I are not pleased with the hired help at home. But how on earth did you know?"

"Really? I was sure it was seven and a half," laughed Holmes. "It's simple, Watson. Your shoes reveal they were covered in mud recently. And I can see the scrape marks carelessly left by the person who cleaned those shoes.

"I also detect the faint smell of antiseptic on you, some sort of black powder on your finger that can only be used to treat infections. And there is a bulge in your coat where you normally carry your stethoscope. These clues tell me you are once again a man of medicine."

"It always sounds so simple when you explain it, Holmes," I said. "Yet I never understand how you get from point A to point B, though I see everything that you see."

"You see, but you do not observe," Holmes said.

Clearly, Holmes was able to infer many things from his observations.

Literature often requires us to do the same. As readers, we must infer things that the writer does not say explicitly. This is called "reading between the lines." If you read between the lines, you understand what someone really means, or what is really happening in a situation, even though it is not said openly.

He placed his hand firmly on her back and ushered her hurriedly out the door. “Yes, yes, yes. I will call you soon to set up another meeting. I will!” George said, punctuating the end of his sentence with a firmly shut door.

In this extract the writer does not explicitly state that the man in the story wants to get rid of the person he is addressing. He does, however, imply this is the case through the action that he describes.

Instructions for the Quiz

Pretend that you are Sherlock Holmes. What can you infer from each passage?