Students often find that understanding the difference between ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ information in historical sources to be difficult.
I think that most of the confusion arises from the fact that the words ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ sound similar. However, it needn’t be a struggle, as the difference is very easy to learn.
In this blog post, I will step you through the two different concepts and provide you with some clear examples to help clarify any lingering confusion.
But first, let’s look at why historical sources contain implicit and explicit information in the first place.
Why historical sources use both explicit and implicit information
When authors are writing down information, they are trying to convince their readers to believe something.
For example, an author might write a biography about a famous general to convince you that they were incredibly brilliant at leading their armies.
Therefore, authors will tell you specific information so that you believe what they’re trying to convince you of.
For example, if they’re trying to convince you about the brilliant general mentioned before, they will share a range of stories about their greatest victories, or their most inspiring speeches.
When they do this, the authors must choose particular words to convey their information. They could choose to be very direct in convincing you or be cunning in how they share the information with you.
For example, they could simply say, “General Jones was an incredibly brilliant general”.
Alternatively, the author could try to be more subtle. Instead of just saying, “He was a brilliant general”, they could instead say, “His personality was so powerful and so rare that no-one else could match his leadership or ability to inspire his men”.
In this example, the author can use one of two ways to convey their information: either with the exact words or using a more subtle approach where they mention associated things that allow you to come to the same conclusion without using the specific words.
One of these approaches is called ‘explicit information’ and the other is ‘implicit information’.
Let’s look at each one separately.
The most obvious way for authors to convey information is ‘explicitly’.
‘Explicit’ means ‘clearly stated’. Most of the time, this is when the author uses specific words to tell you what they want you to believe.
If a source said: “The Renaissance was a historical period where European society finally freed itself from the dark misery of the Middle Ages”, it is explicitly stated that the author believed that the Middle Ages was “dark” and caused “misery” to “European society”. This information is clear because exact words are used to tell you what the author wanted you to believe.
In most circumstances, authors of sources choose to use explicit information so that their audiences aren’t left wondering what to believe. Their information is so clearly stated, and spelled out with exact words, that there is no room for doubt or confusion.
The second way an author can convey information to convince their audience is to ‘imply’ meaning or to be ‘implicit’.
‘Implicit’ means ‘not clearly stated’ or ‘not exactly said’.
When providing information in an implicit way, authors aim to be more subtle, or clever with how they try to convince you to believe what they want you to believe. Rather than stating something directly, they give you enough information so that you reach the conclusion yourself, without the author having to say it in exact words.
If an ancient author was trying to convince their audience that a particular Roman emperor was a god, rather than explicitly saying, “He was a god”, they could imply it by saying:
“The emperor had powers that no normal human being had: he could control the weather, read other people’s minds, and even cause earthquakes whenever he wanted. Finally, when the emperor had decided that his time on earth was finished, he flew up to heaven by himself.”
In this example, you notice that the words, “He was a god”, is not actually said anywhere. Instead, the author has given their audience enough information that they would reach that conclusion without actually being told directly.
In many cases, the authors of historical sources used implicit meaning to change people’s minds about something without the audience noticing, because the information is not clearly stated. For this reason, implicit information is used a lot in propaganda and other persuasive texts.
How to show that you know the difference
The need to know the difference between explicit and implicit meaning is often most important when completing assessment, especially exams. When you complete these tasks, you need to successfully show the exam marker that you can identify information that is either explicitly or implicitly expressed.
To show explicit information, you need to find the exact words in a source that conveys the information. The best way to do this is with a direct quote. Therefore, use the following steps when constructing your answer:
- Read the historical source closely and mark (using an underline or a highlighter) the exact words used by the author.
- Then, in your answer, quote these exact words to show that you’ve been able to identify explicit meaning.
To show implicit information, you need to summarise the meaning of a source using your own words, since it is never directly stated in the source. The best way to do this is by using an indirect quote. However, to show how you reached this conclusion, you also need to support your answer by providing some direct quotes from the source that show what information the author provided that led to this conclusion. Therefore, use the following steps when constructing your answer:
- Read the historical source carefully two or three times.
- Write down, in your own words, what you think the source is trying to convince you of.
- Find two or three statements in the source that leads you to this conclusion.
- Then, in your answer, state your summary first to explain what the source was trying to say.
- Next, support your summary by showing the two or three direct quotes from the source.
- Finally, explain how these direct quotes led you to the conclusion you stated in your summary.
Sources can both be explicit and implicit
The more you study historical sources, the more you realise that they can provide both explicit and implicit information. Usually, you notice this when you are looking for direct quotes to support implied meaning.
Here is a quote from a source:
“The pharaoh enslaved his own people and forced them to build his pyramid. Over a thousand of his citizens died following his commands, but the pharaoh continued with his plans regardless of the suffering caused.”
In the above source, it is clear that the author is implying that the pharaoh was a cruel tyrant who was happy for people to die in order to get what he wanted. This was never clearly stated, and is, therefore, implied.
However, in order to imply this, the author provided explicit information in order to lead you to this conclusion. For example, it clearly stated that he “enslaved his own people” and that he “continued with his plans regardless of the suffering caused”.
A way to remember the difference
Many people have tried to devise a simple way to help remember the difference between the two concepts. Any way that helps you remember is perfectly fine, but here is a handy way to remember the difference between explicit information and implicit information that some students have found helpful.
This trick focuses on the sound at the start of each word:
Explicit has the sound ‘ex’ at the start. This should be a hint that the information uses the exact words. ‘Explicit’ and ‘exact’ start with the same sound.
Implicit has the sound ‘im’ at the start. This should be a hint that you have to ‘imagine’ what the author wanted to convince you of. ‘Implicit’ and ‘imagine’ start with the same sound.
If you’d like further resources on implicit and explicit information from historical sources, read the following pages on the History Skills website.