Flash Card: Infernal Implications

ImageAs with most of the high (hobby)horses you've seen me up on, confusing imply and infer impugns your credibility as a writer and a speaker. However sound your argument, the listener is likely thinking, "Well, jeez, this gal doesn't even know the difference between imply and infer — why should I believe a word she says?"

Since I don't want you to look bad, I applaud any source that effectively explains the difference between the two. The TWIG Touch Dictionary endeared itself to me for this alone:


There is a distinction in meaning between infer and imply. In the sentence "The speaker implied that the general had been a traitor," implied means that the speaker subtly suggested that this man was a traitor (though nothing so explicit was actually stated). However, in "We inferred from his words that the general had been a traitor," inferred means that something in the speaker's words enabled the listeners to deduce that the man was a traitor. The two words infer and imply can describe the same event but from different angles. Use of infer to mean imply, as in "Are you inferring that I'm a liar?" (instead of "Are you implying that I'm a liar?"), is an extremely common error.

Simply stated, imply means to express something indirectly, to hint, intimate or insinuate. Infer, on the other hand, means to arrive at a conclusion, to guess, gather or surmise.

This seems pretty straightforward, but how do you remember which one's which? To me, implying is like pitching, whereas inferring is like catching. So I associate the "p" in pitch with the "p" in imply. If I want to say that someone is implying something, I think of that person pitching a spitball. Pitch → p → imply.

(IF ONLY "infer" had a "c" in it to make my little memory trick work both ways. The best I can do is: No "p" means no pitch, so no imply, i.e. the word I want must be infer, which has no "p.")

Speaking of spitballs, the other "p" word I associate with imply is passive-aggressive, which Merriam-Webster.com defines as "displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way."

Imply has a negative connotation for me. Maybe it's because the Anglo-French root is emplier — "to entangle" (hardly a positive pursuit). Maybe it's because innocent people are always being implicated in crimes. Maybe it's because "The speaker implied that the general had been a traitor." It seems that good things are rarely implied — if they're good, after all, why not express them directly?


"The words infer and imply can describe the same event but from different angles."

A Google search of the term passive-aggressive in tandem with the term implication yields 331,000 (or so) results, including "Is this some passive-aggressive implication that I am the 'fake Tron guy?'" So, yeah, associating the "p" in imply with the "p" in passive-aggressive is another way to go.

Nor does infer escape pop-psychological analysis. We frequently infer negative meaning, even when nothing negative is intended. Like when you try to make plans with a long-lost friend who just can't seem to confirm or deny whatever date you've proposed. Is it because she doesn't want to see you? No. Is it because she's on a two-week silent retreat? Yes.

And here you were, fool, ready to call it quits — based on a faulty inference — on what may yet be an enriching relationship. Perhaps we should equate the "f" in infer with those in fool and faulty (and false, for that matter).

Or consider that the word infer comes from the Latin inferre — to carry — and think about the baggage you bring to the (unspoken) conversation when you infer erroneously.

Yes, yes, these are gross oversimplifications. You can surely imply that your sister is a talented (and ambitious) baker by confessing that you've eaten half the seven-layer cake she made for dessert; you can certainly infer that a seven-layer cake is what's for dessert based on the cookbook left open to the seven-layer-cake page. (CAKE IS GOOD.)

But as far as I'm concerned, those examples aren't as useful in helping remember when to say imply and when to say infer. It's the bad child who gets the attention.

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