April 2, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: imply or infer

Posted in infer or imply at 6:46 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I hope you can help me with this. One of my colleagues uses ‘infer’ when I think he means ‘imply.’ I mentioned this to him, and he showed me several online dictionaries that did have ‘imply’ as one of the definitions for ‘infer.’ I still think he’s wrong, but he has the dictionaries on his side. Can you help me show him he is wrong?

We discussed this before, but it was back in 2009, so I think it’s time to address it again (boy, I’ve been doing this for a long time). I believe that my job (and my joy) is to encourage folks, rather than finding a way to prove that your poor colleague is wrong (he’s wrong). But I am more than happy to encourage our reader by telling her that she’s absolutely right (and he’s wrong).

Let me explain.’Infer’ means to deduce or figure out something based on the evidence that you have accumulated.

I am inferring, from your hesitation, that you don’t know the answer to my question.

We infer, from the way you mutter every time we mention your brother’s name, that he is not one of your favorite people.

The speakers have deduced something based on the clues/cues that they have acquired.

On the other hand, ‘imply’ means to hint at or suggest.

The obnoxious speaker implied that he was the smartest person in the room.

The scientist implied that global warming was worsening.

The scientist and the obnoxious speaker were able to suggest something without saying it explicitly.

So these words are not interchangeable. The speaker implies something, and the listener infers the meaning.

Then, why oh why, is ‘imply’ used as one of the definitions for ‘infer’ in some dictionaries? I expect that it is because the dictionaries, especially the online dictionaries, cave, or should I say, respond to common usage, regardless of whether it is correct or not. It’s for the same reason that I think ‘comprise’ will eventually become a synonym for ‘compose.’ But with regard to ‘imply’ and ‘infer,’ I think the distinction should be maintained; the words serve different, yet useful, purposes. So the reader is right, but I want to give encouragement to her colleague, too. And I encourage him to learn the difference between ‘imply’ and ‘infer.’ They are both good words and can be very handy to have around.

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