Imply and infer—why are these simple words so difficult to use correctly? Implication—to imply—is the act of couching a subtext within speech or writing. Inference—to infer—is the complementary act of discerning a subtext within speech or writing. The concepts seem straightforward, yet I see them misused—typically by saying infer when the context demands imply—at least weekly on Twitter, on television talk shows, and in the news. And this isn’t simply a matter of un- or undereducated individuals abusing the English language. I see journalists, lawyers, and US Senators making such statements as, “My learned opponent’s declaration is clearly inferring…” or just asking, “What are you inferring?” in response to an apparent insulting subtext.
These two concepts should be easy to get right if you just remember one simple fact about each term:
- Only a transmitter (speaker, actor, or writer) can imply.
- Only a receiver (listener, watcher, or reader) can infer.
With that in mind, the question (that all too frequently pops up in heated exchanges), “What are you inferring?” asks, “How are you reading this?” If you want to ask, “What is your subtext?” you should ask, “What are you implying?”
This all seems pretty straightforward to me, but I know some folks prefer more concrete examples—something they can visualize, so let’s try a slightly more fleshed-out example.
At a professional conference, we see a group of old friends—Alice, Bob, Charlie, Dawn, and Ed—who have worked and recreated together for several years. Through shared experience, they’ve developed their own in-jokes, their own cant. Somewhere along the way, they started using the word brushfire to mean an STI. So, instead of saying, “I think that guy’s got the clap,” one of the five might say something like, “I think we may have a brushfire over here.”
On one day of the conference, the five attend a presentation together, at which Alice notices that another acquaintance of the group, William, is fidgeting. Later, at lunch, Alice points out William and asks the others, “Did you see the way he was squirming? I think I smell a brushfire.”
Bob, hearing Alice, thinks, “Alice thinks William has an STI.”
Of course, group cant notwithstanding, it’s always possible that Alice’s final statement is factual. Maybe she really does smell smoke. Given the context, however, Bob is probably correct.
In this example, Alice implies, “William has an STI.”
In this same example, Bob infers, “William has an STI.”
I used this same example several years ago, while I was teaching English Comp at UT Austin. A student of mine pointed out that Alice’s interpretation of William’s squirming could also correctly be termed inference. Alice infers from William’s movements that he has an STI. The student asked how Alice could infer if she is the transmitter. The answer is that Alice is also a receiver. Alice receives information by seeing William’s movements (her inference) but then transmits that information (her implication) to her friends.