How to Analyze a Reading Comp Inference Question
In recent weeks, we’ve been examining how to analyze specific questions using the system described in the original How To Analyze A Practice Problem article. We’re continuing the series this week with a look at an Inference question from a Reading Comprehension passage.
The passage and question below are both from the ManhattanGMAT CAT database. Give yourself about 2.5 to 3 minutes to read and take notes on this long passage. Give yourself 1.5 to 2 minutes to answer the inference question. (I chose this particular passage and question, by the way, based upon questions that a student recently asked me about this one, so I’ll use some of that in my analysis below.)
“Sarah Meyers McGinty, in her useful new book Power Talk: Using Language to Build Authority and Influence, argues that while the simple lingual act of declaring power does not help a powerless person gain influence, well-considered linguistic techniques and maneuvers do. McGinty does not dispute the importance of factors such as expertise and ability in determining stature, but argues persuasively that these power determinants amount to little in a person unable to communicate effectively. Management theorists share McGinty’s view that communication is essential for success and many surveys have shown that the ability to communicate effectively is the characteristic judged by managers to be most critical in determining promotability.
“McGinty divides speech into two categories: "language from the center" and "language from the edge". In McGinty's words, "Language from the center makes a speaker sound like a leader.” McGinty suggests that not only is language from the center for those in high positions of power, but it is also for those of lower ranks who wish to gain more power and credibility. A speaker using language from the center exhibits the following: he directs rather than responds; he makes statements rather than asks questions; he contradicts, argues, and disagrees; he uses his experience persuasively; and he maintains an air of impersonality in the workplace. McGinty suggests that the use of language from the center can alter or create a new balance of power. These assertions are supported by studies that show that people accept leadership from those they perceive to be experts.
“Language from the edge stands in stark contrast to language from the center. Language from the edge is careful, exploratory, and inquiring. It is inclusive, deferential, and collaborative. A speaker using language from the edge responds rather than directs; asks questions; strives to make others feel heard and protected; and avoids argument. The main purpose of language from the center is to claim authority for a speaker, while language from the edge strives to build consensus and trust. McGinty argues that true power comes from a deep understanding of when to use which style and the ability to use both as necessary.
“What distinguishes McGinty’s discussion of effective communication is her focus on communication skills as a way of gaining power; this contrasts with most general management theory, which focuses on communication skills as a way of preventing misunderstandings, avoiding conflict, and fostering interpersonal relationships. McGinty, however, holds that language not only helps maintain relationships but also lends authority. According to Power Talk, effective communication skill “is an understanding of how situation shapes speech and how speech shapes situation” and “an understanding of how speech styles and the forces that affect those styles . . . can build your authority, and enhance your credibility and impact.”
And here’s the question:
The passage suggests that McGinty would be most likely to agree with which of the following?
(A) Language from the center is more effective than language from the edge.
(B) Managers who use language from the edge are not authoritative.
(C) Powerful people are both authoritative and inclusive.
(D) The only way to become powerful is to learn to use language from the center.
(E) Language from the edge is used primarily by low-level employees.
After trying the problem, checking the answer (C!), and reading and understanding the solution (read the original article, linked above), I try to answer these questions:
1. Did I know WHAT they were trying to test?
- Was I able to CATEGORIZE this question by topic and subtopic? By process / technique? If I had to look something up in my books, would I know exactly where to go?
It’s RC. It’s a long passage, which means there will be 3 or 4 paragraphs, and I should have a pretty clear idea of what kind of info is in each paragraph. I wasn’t sure at first what kind of question it was.
- Did I COMPREHEND the symbols, text, questions, statements, and answer choices? Can I comprehend it all now, when I have lots of time to think about it? What do I need to do to make sure that I do comprehend everything here? How am I going to remember whatever I've just learned for future?
The “suggests” and “most likely to agree with” language indicates an inference question (but I had to go back to my book to look that up). On inference questions, we’re supposed to find the answer that must be true according to the information given in the passage. I did know that – I just didn’t recognize that this was an inference question in the first place. I’m going to make a flash card that says “inference” on one side and “suggest” and “most likely to agree with” on the other side. Maybe I’ll also include other words that can indicate an inference question (for example, imply).
- Did I understand the actual CONTENT (facts, knowledge) being tested?
I think I understood the main point of the passage: M thinks that good communication skills can help people gain power / authority. P1 introduces M and her theory. P2 is about “language from the center.” P3 is about “language from the edge.” P4 talks about how M’s theory contrasts with “general management theory” and also reinforces the main point of the theory. I didn’t articulate all of this carefully enough on my scrap paper, though.
2. How well did I HANDLE what they were trying to test?
- Did I choose the best APPROACH? Or is there a better way to do the problem? (There's almost always a better way!) What is that better way? How am I going to remember this better approach the next time I see a similar problem?
Next time, I want to make sure that I recognize an inference question right from the start. I got stuck between choices B and C; knowing it was an inference question might have made it easier for me to see that B was wrong.
- Did I have the SKILLS to follow through? Or did I fall short on anything?
See above answer.
- Did I make any careless mistakes? If so, WHY did I make each mistake? What habits could I make or break to minimize the chances of repeating that careless mistake in future?
I didn’t fully articulate the main point to myself before I tried to do the question; that was a careless mistake because I knew I was supposed to do that, but I was in a hurry and just didn’t do it. That might also have helped me to decide more easily between B and C.
- Am I comfortable with OTHER STRATEGIES that would have worked, at least partially? How should I have made an educated guess?
The word “only” in D seems pretty extreme. That kind of language usually indicates a wrong answer on RC. The passage doesn’t discuss “low-level employees,” so that’s more likely to be out of scope (if I have to make a guess right now!).
- Do I understand every TRAP & TRICK that the writer built into the question, including wrong answers?
(A) is tempting because she says that “center” language “makes a speaker sound like a leader” (P2) and then she says that Language from the edge stands in stark contrast to language from the center” (P3). Oh, but then she says “true power comes from a deep understanding of when to use which style” so I guess both styles lead to power.
(B) was tempting for similar reasons, especially “The main purpose of language from the center is to claim authority for a speaker, while language from the edge strives to build consensus and trust.” Oh, but then she says “true power comes from a deep understanding of when to use which style and the ability to use both as necessary.” So, that sentence tells us that some people use both styles. The first sentence tells us that someone using the “center” style is claiming authority, so someone using both styles is still claiming authority. Tricky!
3. How well did I or could I RECOGNIZE what was going on?
- Did I make a CONNECTION to previous experience? If so, what problem(s) did this remind me of and what, precisely, was similar? Or did I have to do it all from scratch? If so, see the next bullet.
- Can I make any CONNECTIONS now, while I'm analyzing the problem? What have I done in the past that is similar to this one? How are they similar? How could that recognition have helped me to do this problem more efficiently or effectively? (This may involve looking up some past problem and making comparisons between the two!)
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this language in a question before, so I should’ve recognized that this was an inference question.
- HOW will I recognize similar problems in the future? What can I do now to maximize the chances that I will remember and be able to use lessons learned from this problem the next time I see a new problem that tests something similar?
I’m definitely going to have to make a flash card or two and drill this; not recognizing that question type made my job a lot harder on this one. In addition, I was really tempted by wrong answer B; I need to carefully examine the relevant sentences in the passage when I’m having doubts between two choices.
And that’s it! Note that, of course, the details above are specific to each individual person – such a write-up would be different for every single one of you, depending upon your particular strengths, weaknesses, and mistakes. Hopefully, though, this gives you a better idea of the way to analyze a problem. This framework also gives you a valuable way to discuss problems with fellow online students or in study groups – this is the kind of discussion that really helps to maximize scores.