infer

A. Meaning.

Properly used, infer means “to deduce from evidence; to reason from premises to a conclusion”—e.g.:

  • “We get no sense of the man himself from this book except what we can infer from the biographical facts that Mr. Magida presents.”

    John B. Judis, “Maximum Leader,” N.Y. Times, 18 Aug. 1996, § 7, at 24.

  • “FBI spokesmen have told us that we are not to infer that Richard is guilty of anything merely because he is a suspect, among others.”

    Larry Maddry, “FBI Should Charge Jewell or Cut Him Some Slack,” Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk), 26 Aug. 1996, at E1.

B. And imply.

Writers frequently misuse infer when imply (= to hint at; suggest) would be the correct word—e.g.:

  • “So they obliged him, publishing his life story in its March 24th issue, without inferring [read implying] that he was going to die.”

    Lennie Grimaldi, “Connecticut Q&A: Robert Pelton,” N.Y. Times, 7 Apr. 1991, Conn. §, at 3.

  • “And no team is, of course, inferring [read implying] that Dallas isn’t talented.”

    Mike Freeman, “Cowboys Say Charges Are Just Sour Grapes,” N.Y. Times, 12 Jan. 1996, at B14.

  • “One [response] was a bright and chatty letter that clearly inferred [read implied] that Grandma had put her message across.”

    June Lejeune, “Thanks or No Thanks,” Sarasota Herald-Trib., 12 Feb. 1997, at B4.

Remember: a speaker or writer implies something without putting it expressly. A listener or reader infers beyond what has been literally expressed. Or, as Theodore Bernstein put it, “The implier is the pitcher; the inferrer is the catcher.” The Careful Writer 227 (1965).

Don’t be swayed by apologetic notes in some dictionaries that sanction the use of infer as a substitute for imply. Stylists agree that the important distinction between these words deserves to be maintained.

Language-Change Index

infer misused for imply: Stage 3

Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner

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