Imply vs. Infer

Two words that can be used interchangeably? That have the same meaning? Let’s see.

Imply im·ply [im-plahy] verb 1. to indicate or suggest without being explicitly stated 2. to signify or mean. 3. to involve as a necessary circumstance. Related Words: connote, entail. dictionary Synonyms: assume, include. thesaurus Origin: late 14c., “to enfold, enwrap, entangle” from O.Fr. emplier, from L. implicare “involve” (implicate). Meaning “to involve something unstated as a logical consequence” first recorded 1529. etymology

Infer in·fer [in-fur] verb 1. to derive by reasoning 2. to indicate as a conclusion; lead to. 3. to guess; speculate; surmise. 4. to hint; imply; suggest. 5. to draw a conclusion, as by reasoning. dictionary Synonyms: deduce, reason, guess. thesaurus Origin: 1520s, from L. inferre “bring into, cause,” Sense of “draw a conclusion” is first attested 1520s. etymology

Infer means to deduce and to reason. Imply means to hint at and to suggest. Here is a simple way to remember which is which: “What do you imply by that remark?” “What do I infer from that remark?” etymology Even simpler: a speaker or writer implies, a hearer or reader infers. thesaurus

Who better to illustrate infer than the great logician, Sherlock Holmes? While waiting for Holmes to finish breakfast, Dr. Watson picked up a magazine in which an article was highlighted. As he later notes in A Study In Scarlett, “it attempted to show how much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came in his way.” He goes on to read, “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.” Thus, Dr. Watson learns how the great Sherlock Holmes solves the case! In this, our first introduction to his now-famous detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (via Dr. Watson) distills how Holmes’s mind works – by inferring what others miss he sees everything. Rather than simply gathering the clue’s connotation or meaning, Holmes uses deductive reasoning – making it logical to infer his penchant for inference.

In David Byrnes’s online journal, his March 15, 2011 entry “Collaborations” discusses the songwriting process. “But at times words can be a dangerous addition to music — they can pin it down. Words imply that the music is about ‘that’ (‘that’ being what the words say literally) and nothing else.”

Besides learning that he has a Tammy Wynette poster on his home studio wall (!), his elucidation brought to mind that wondrous Talking Heads song, Life During Wartime. Is it the end of the world in New York City? Not as we know it. By mixing pop and edge with darkness and humor, we get: “This ain’t no party, This ain’t no disco, This ain’t no foolin’ around. This ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB’s, I ain’t got time for that now.” Words implying what the music is about. The music implying what the words are about. The result is a song that describes life in that place at that time perfectly.

So, no, these two words cannot be used interchangeably because they do not have the same meaning.

And on the topic of dogs…well, ok, we weren’t before, but now we are. While I think that Sheepdogs are nice but too hairy, I imply that I don’t want to shampoo and comb one. You could infer that not only do I not want to shampoo and comb one, I do not want to own one, and you may further infer that I would prefer being owned by a Westie. A preferred inference.


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