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'Imply' Versus 'Infer'

How a suggestion box can help you remember the difference between "imply" and "infer."

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

 

Mixing up “imply” and “infer” is a common mistake, so let’s get it right:

The short answer is that writers or speakers imply, and listeners or readers infer. 

Imply

When you imply, you hint at something rather than saying it directly. “Imply” comes from a Latin word that meant “to enfold.” You can think of an implied statement as hidden or folded into what was actually said. For example, a writer can imply that a character is the murderer without saying it directly.

It turns out that the word “employ,” as in to use something or hire someone, comes from the same root.

Writers or speakers imply. Listeners or readers infer. 

Infer

When you infer, you deduce some meaning that was left unsaid. “Infer” comes from a Latin word that means “to bring in.” You can think of readers or listeners using their own interpretation to bring a meaning that isn’t explicitly stated into a sentence. For example, a reader who sees that a character has motive and opportunity may infer that the character is the murderer.

The incorrect use of “infer” to mean “imply” is so common that in a decade or so it may be considered standard, but for now, careful writers and speakers continue to make a distinction.

How to remember ‘imply’ versus ‘infer’

Here’s how I remember that to imply is to hint, to say something indirectly. 

First, I remember that “imply” rhymes with “employ” and they come from the same root.

Then I think of those seemingly useless suggestion boxes that you sometimes see in workplaces so employees can suggest something. 

And then I think of the related word, “imply,” meaning that the writer is suggesting something without actually saying it. To imply is to hint at something or to suggest it without saying it directly. So in a roundabout way, an employee suggestion box helps me remember that “imply” means to suggest something instead of saying it directly.

imply or infer

Examples

Imply

But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. — Carl Sagan

I would not wish to imply that most industrial accidents are due to intemperance. But, certainly, temperance has never failed to reduce their number. — William Lyon Mackenzie King

Infer

From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. — Arthur Conan Doyle

We infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language, which is a sort of monument, to which each forcible individual in a course of many hundred years has contributed a stone. — Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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