A Word for Wednesday: Imply or Infer?

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In Word for Wednesday blog this week, we’ll be clearing up a pair of words, which, in my experience, many people struggle with. The words in question are ‘imply’ and ‘infer’. The difference is subtle but marked – leading to their easy confusion and misuse.

To imply, is a communicative device whereby one suggests or indicates something without explicitly stating it – in words or speech.

Here’s an example:

John, you need to lay off the hamburgers

Here, the speaker implies that John should lose some weight. However, it is left as an open statement. This allows John or the other people in the conversation to draw their own conclusions and meanings from this rather cold statement.

So, to imply is to suggest something whilst avoiding directly stating it. Here, our speaker could just as easily have said ‘John, you’ve gotten fat’ but that might be more rude. Some things are better left to implication.

Another example of implication:

Has your teacher ever told you that you’re falling behind in class? They are implying that you need to get your head down and work a little harder to catch up – at least, that is the implication they might hope you will take from it.

To infer is to reach a conclusion based on the available evidence. In a sense, it is the opposite of imply. Say a writer or speaker has avoided explicitly stating something, you can then decide to infer or deduce a conclusion based on what the writer or speaker did state.

The word ‘infer’ is often used in the courtroom. The judge determines a conclusion based on what he inferred from both parties’ evidence.

Let’s imagine John’s bank statement. We see that he has spent a lot of money on hamburgers over the past few months. We are able to infer that his increase in weight was triggered by his recent splashing out on junk food.

To clarify, inferring is when you use information to come to personal conclusions. Implying is when a statement contains one or more suggestions or hints without explicitly stating them – more of a clue.

Hugh MacDermott


10 Jul 2013
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