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PSAT/NMSQT Reading-Comprehension Tactics: Deducing the Answer to Inference Questions

The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes specialized in shrewd (perceptive) observations that led him to logical conclusions. When you encounter an inference question on the PSAT/NMSQT, channel your inner Sherlock Holmes. Look at what the passage says, and extend the meaning of those clues to a probable answer.

For example, the passage may describe an actor who’s constantly glancing around between scenes, checking the director’s reaction. A description of the actor’s dressing room mentions a copy of a show business publication with circled help-wanted ads, along with some newspapers open to the reviews of the actor’s show.

What do you infer from these clues? The actor is insecure about his job or talent (or both!). The passage doesn’t tell you that he is insecure; you figured it out from the information supplied. Approach inference questions this way:

  • Identify inference questions. Read the question stems first. Most inferences include some form of the words imply, suggest, likely, or probably. (A few non-inference questions use those words too. Check that the question requires you to extend your knowledge beyond what appears in the passage.)

  • As you read the passage, put a check in the margin next to every clue. For example, suppose the question stem says, “What is the most likely reason for Alan’s refusal to speak to Rosa?”

    As you read, you discover that Rosa and Alan were once good friends. Check! Then you see that Rosa complained to her supervisor about Alan’s work on a project. Check! Consequently, Alan was fired. Check!

  • Use logic to extend what you know. Now that you have clues, look for an answer that logically flows from them. Continuing the example of Alan and Rosa, you want an answer choice that mentions Alan’s anger at Rosa’s actions.

Inference questions sometimes extend beyond the passage. You may be asked to identify a statement with which the author would agree, for example. No problem! Simply think about what’s in the passage and the beliefs implied. Then look for a statement that matches those views.

Take a shot at inference Questions 3 and 4, based on an excerpt from The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker (Wiley).

An experienced reporter who was assigned to work on a newspaper food section did not
know the difference in recipe writing between a lowercase t and an uppercase T (teaspoon
and tablespoon, respectively). Needless to say, he didn’t last long on the food beat.
The point is that the reporter’s level of knowledge may be typical. One woman called a cooking
hotline to say that she had a new oven. She wanted to know whether it was preheated. Another
woman called to complain that her cake had turned out gritty. It turns out that she had used
whole eggs — shells and all.
Another caller had driven all over town looking for powdered sherry. She was furious that a recipe
ingredient wasn’t available. The recipe had called for “dry sherry.” Other callers inquired how far to
drop “drop cookies,” where to get a soup can of water, and how to tell whether a pan is 9 inches.
  1. The reporter mentioned in Line 1 was transferred from the food section of a newspaper probably because he

        (A)    lacked basic information about cooking
        (B)    couldn’t follow grammar rules
        (C)    had a background in general reporting
        (D)    was not a leading expert on food
        (E)    did not know how to use ingredients properly
  2. The authors most likely describe these particular phone calls to the food hotline (Lines 4–10) because they believe that

        (A)    recipes should be written more clearly
        (B)    more hotlines are needed
        (C)    the average person needs better culinary education
        (D)    cooking errors may be dangerous
        (E)    only advanced chefs can follow recipes

Now check your answers:

  1. A. lacked basic information about cooking

    The passage tells you that the reporter was experienced (check!) but confused two common recipe abbreviations (check!). The authors throw in “needless to say” (Line 3, and another check!). Okay, Sherlock Holmes, what do you conclude? The reporter probably knows grammar (he or she is “experienced”) but not the conventions (rules) of recipe writing.

    Those two facts point you to Choices (A) and (D). Your third clue, “needless to say,” makes Choice (A) the better answer, because that phrase is the equivalent of “everybody knows you have to understand the difference between t and T to read a recipe.”

  2. C. the average person needs better culinary education

    Right before the phone call descriptions, the passage says that “the reporter’s level of knowledge may be typical” (Line 4). In the explanation for Question 1, you find three clues that lead you to believe that the reporter lacked basic knowledge.

    Continuing with the phone calls, you see a bunch of dumb questioners, including one who threw egg shells into batter and another who didn’t know how to measure a pan. That last clue is the kicker. Even if calling the local restaurant for reservations is the limit of your culinary (cooking-related) experience, you can probably measure a pan. Therefore, Choice (C) is the logical inference.

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