Imply vs. Infer

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If you have trouble choosing between imply and infer, you’re not alone. Many writers switch them even though they have distinct meanings.

To imply is to suggest or express indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion. However, you’ll frequently see something like this:

The news story inferred that the defendant was guilty.

Even though some dictionaries support infer as a synonym for imply, the distinction is important. Without it, the meaning of the above example is unclear. Did the news story draw the conclusion that the defendant was guilty? Or did it simply suggest it? You really can’t tell for certain, can you?

When you’re striving for clarity in writing, it’s critical to use the right words. In the case of imply and infer, it helps to remember that the speaker implies and the listener infers.

Here are some quotations from newspapers:

… husband, Vitaly Stepanov, spoke with reporters and detailed the gravity of their situation. In it, Stepanova seemed to imply they feared for their safety, saying, If something happens to us, all of you should know, it’s not an … (www.chicagotribune.com)

… if your tax returns are very classy, but not quite this classy? If you don’t release your returns, voters will infer that they’re not the very best tax returns. And if that’s all they know, they’ll infer that you’re in the … (www.nytimes.com)

… at Duke University in North Carolina. Soft tissues are not preserved in fossils, so researchers have had to infer the details of dinosaur brains from the faint impressions the organs leave on the insides of fossilised skulls. … (www.theguardian.com)

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3 thoughts on “Imply vs. Infer”

  1. “If you see a man staggering along the road you may infer that he is drunk, without saying a word; but if you say ‘Had one too many?’ you do not infer, but imply, that he is drunk.” (A P Herbert)

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