​​What’s the Difference Between an Observation and an Inference?
  • 3-minute read
  • 8th December 2022

​​What’s the Difference Between an Observation and an Inference?

Just about every type of essay, dissertation, or thesis you’ll be asked to write will involve observations and inferences. You’ll probably have heard them used interchangeably in speech; although they’re related, they have different meanings. Don’t waste your hard work by using the wrong words! Once you know how, distinguishing between observation and inference is simple.

Observation

An observation is a fact that you can note with one of your senses and can be quantitative (countable or measurable) and/or qualitative (having or lacking a particular characteristic). Observations would include:

There are six people left in the house.

No one has entered or left the house since those six arrived.

I heard a scream.

I saw Colonel Mustard running out of the study.

I smelled smoke.

The wine has a bitter taste.

Mr. Boddy’s face is cold to the touch.

You could say that observations are clues: you can find them without having to think or attach any meaning to them. That’ll come later. It may help to look at the first two letters and remember that observations are obvious and objective.

Look at some more examples here.

Inference

An inference is the opinion you form as a result of one or more observations. Inferences would include:

I heard a scream and saw Colonel Mustard running out of the study; therefore, Colonel Mustard must have seen something that scared him.
I smelled smoke; therefore, the candle must have been blown out recently.
There are six people in the house, and no one else has entered or left; therefore, one of those six must have committed the crime.

You’ll see that, while there’s no real debate over the observations, the inferences drawn from them may differ widely. That’s because inferences are subjective; the interpretation of the facts will depend on who is doing that interpreting. It may help to look at the first two letters and remember that inferences are open to individual interpretation.

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Have a look at some further examples here.

Summary: Observation or Inference?

When faced with the choice between these two terms, remember this:

●  Observations are obvious. These are like the cards that are shown to us in a game of Clue (or Cluedo, if you’re looking at the UK version): they’re facts to note. You might also think of a detective using a magnifying glass – which is often in the shape of a big “O,” the first letter of “observation” – to look for clues.

●  Inferences are open to individual interpretation. These are like the guesses we make based on the cards we’ve seen in a game of Clue. It may also help to remember that we say that inferences are drawn and, as such, they must follow.

Whatever inferences you may draw from your observations, ensure that what you’ve written says what you think it does. To do that, you’ll need to proofread your writing. If you need expert help with your terminology, we have a team available 24/7. You can upload a free sample to try this out.

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