Let’s start with the straightforward dictionary definitions:
- Indicate the truth or existence of (something) by suggestion rather than explicit reference (OED)
- To express (something) in an indirect way : to suggest (something) without saying or showing it plainly (MW)
- Deduce or conclude (something) from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements (OED)
- To form (an opinion) from evidence : to reach (a conclusion) based on known facts (MW)
I have to admit that I find the definitions extremely clear, and I don’t understand how the two verbs are confused. However, perplex, they do. I have come across two good ways to help remember the difference.
The first is to use a ‘throw’ and ‘catch’ analogy. Implying is the throwing, inferring is the catching.
The second good way is to remember that the speaker implies, the listener infers.
The following, therefore, would be incorrect:
Speaker (or thrower): You are vertically challenged.
Listener (or catcher): I imply that you think I’m short?
The speaker was doing the ‘expressing in an indirect way’, so he was doing the implying (throwing) and the listener was doing the inferring (catching).
Speaker: You are vertically challenged.
Listener: I infer that you think I’m short.
Again, the following is incorrect:
The statistics infer that the sales of ebooks are exceeding those of paperbacks.
The statistics are not the ‘catcher’ or ‘listener’. They are the ‘thrower’ or ‘speaker’
Correct: The statistics imply that the sales of ebooks are exceeding those of paperbacks.
Here’s another incorrect example:
From the way she was walking, I implied that her shoes were uncomfortable.
The ‘I’ here is the catcher (listener), not the thrower (or speaker).
From the way she was walking, I inferred that her shoes were uncomfortable.
Let’s put the two verbs together, correctly, in one sentence:
The sales assistant implied that the length of the dress was better suited to a shorter person, so I inferred from her remarks that she thought I didn’t look too good in a mini skirt.
And there we have it! I hope to be able to (*please insert correct word here: infer or imply?*) from your comments that you have found this helpful. Hint: ‘I’ will be doing the catching or listening.