It’s a fairly common mistake for people learning english to mix up verb pairs like learn and teach, give and take, lend and borrow, or throw and catch, where the verb you use changes depending on whether you are describing the start of an interaction or the completion of an interaction. But there’s a pair of verbs that even many native English speakers get wrong: imply and infer.
Definitions of infer and imply
These verbs describe subtly communicating or understanding information. If I imply something, I am trying to communicate it without actually saying it. For example, if a friend asks me a direct question:
“Is the coffee good here?”
I might answer indirectly:
“They’re not known for great coffee.”
Even though I’m not actually saying “No, the coffee is bad,” I clearly expect them to understand that’s what I mean. In other words, I imply the coffee is bad, and my friend should infer that the coffee is bad — to infer is to understand something other than what is immediately obvious.
Just like I could throw something and nobody catches it, I might imply something and be misunderstood or not be understood at all. And just like I could learn something that I’m not being taught, I can infer things that are not correct, or were not implied at all. Both verbs describe an action whose success and accuracy is uncertain.
While most often used when talking about people intentionally communicating ideas, any person, thing, fact, or idea could be said to imply something, whether they intend to or not. And I could infer something that isn’t immediately obvious from any person, thing, fact, or idea as well.
Usage and examples
In a sentence, it is always an idea or information that is being implied, not another person. A noun phrase can be the direct object, or we can use that to introduce a clause if we need to say something more complex.
Noun phrase: “The salesman implied the reason for the higher price.”
Subordinate clause: “I was implying that the judge would give them a lighter sentence.”
Subordinate clause: “He implied that he’ll be late.”
In real usage, English speakers will often leave out the that without any confusion (we would even say in this case that the that is implied!).
“I had implied the judge would give them a lighter sentence.”
“She’s implying she’ll be late.”
If you want to say to whom something is being implied, a person or group can be an indirect object with to. The indirect object could be before or after the direct object, depending on emphasis. As in:
“I will imply to the judge that she should give them a lighter sentence.”
“I implied I would be late to my family.”
Similarly, when I infer, the information I’m understanding is the direct object, and the source of this information can be an indirect object with from. As in:
“I inferred the driver was distracted from his erratic steering.”
“She infers from the bartender’s attitude that it is almost closing time.”
Obviously, saying something like “I am implying that…” defeats the purpose of implying anything, so it is most common to hear imply in the past or future tense. But there’s a special present tense use of infer which forms a question:
“I infer that you don’t intend to come at all?”
“I am inferring from your lack of signage that you don’t have a toilet?”
In this form, it’s the same as asking a question that begins ‘am I correct in inferring’. This usage is a very formal and old-fashioned way of speaking, but most English speakers understand it, as long as you clearly say it like it’s a question.
Inference and implication
There are also the nouns implication and inference which are used slightly differently. An inference can mean either the information being inferred or the act of inferring things. Inferences are usually drawn:
“Inference is reading between the lines.”
“Her inference was that he would not be on time.”
“He was drawing inferences that were uncannily accurate from very little information.”
An implication is a piece of information that is being implied, the act of implying things, or the outcome of an event or decision. Implications are usually made:
“Implication is a good way to be misunderstood.”
“His implication was that he would not vote for the amendment.”
“She was making implications with her tone of voice that betrayed her words.”
“One implication of the budget is job losses at the department.”
So there you go! By telling you the right way to use imply and infer, I’m implying that there’s a common mistake that people make. I hope you have inferred that this is not the right way to use imply:
× “I implied from what you said that people often make this mistake.”
The correct word to use here would be:
√ “I inferred from what you said that people often make this mistake.”
But just in case you hadn’t inferred that, I thought I’d better clarify.
Further reading and learning resources
Grammarist summarises the difference between imply and infer with a handful of real-world examples.
Are you catching what I’m throwing? I’d love to hear your questions or comments below!