Imply or infer?
What’s the difference in meaning between imply and infer? If you’re scratching your head, it’s not surprising: many people get these two verbs confused. Here are two sentences in which the wrong one has been chosen:
X He seems to be inferring, only days after the appointment, that Michael is the wrong man for the job.
X May I imply from your reply that you would rather be in the Cabinet?
If a speaker or writer implies something, they are suggesting it in an indirect way rather than making an explicit statement. As a reader or listener, you are left to draw your own conclusions from what has been said or hinted.
Here are some sentences from the Oxford English Corpus that use the verb imply correctly:
✓ I did not mean to imply that there was any truth to these accusations.
✓ English Heritage stresses that inclusion in the ‘at risk’ register does not imply any criticism of the property’s owners.
✓ The report implies that two million jobs might be lost.
Someone who implies a fact, belief, or opinion seeks to convey this information but it is up to the person receiving the information to interpret it.
When someone infers something, they reach a conclusion or decide that something is true on the basis of the evidence available. If they are listening to or reading another person’s words, they come to a conclusion about what is meant even though the writer or speaker has not stated this explicitly.
Infer is often used with the preposition ‘from’.
Here are three sentences showing the correct use of infer:
✓ I inferred from his evidence that he surrendered his licence after the conclusion of the dispute.
✓ From this speech, the audience is able to infer that Hamlet will attempt to kill his uncle later in the play.
✓ The welcome she received would have led an onlooker to infer that Patty had been gone three months instead of three days.
Someone who infers that something is the case receives information and forms their own conclusions.
Same event, different perspectives
Remember that imply and infer can be used to describe the same event, but that they present this event from different points of view. Take a look at the following two sentences:
He implied that the General had been a traitor.
[presented from the writer’s or speaker’s perspective]
I inferred from his words that the General had been a traitor.
[presented from the listener’s perspective]
In the first sentence, the writer or speaker doesn’t actually claim that the General had betrayed his country, but his words (or even his tone) have suggested that this is the case.
In the second sentence, whatever was said about the General has enabled the listener to deduce that he was in fact a traitor (without the writer or speaker having risked a charge or libel or slander).