Imply vs. Infer: How to Choose the Right Word

The difference is in your point of view

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The verbs "imply" and "infer" are easily confused because their meanings are closely associated. Put simply, a writer or speaker "implies" (or suggests) something; a reader or listener "infers" (or deduces).

"In a sense, these two words can be thought of as the opposite sides of a single coin," writes Adrienne Robins in "The Analytical Writer." "'Imply' means 'to indicate without stating' or 'to express indirectly.' 'Infer' means 'to draw a conclusion.' Thus, what a writer may 'imply,' a reader may 'infer.'"

How to Use "Imply"

To imply is to express something indirectly. If you're implying something in a conversation, you may be trying to talk about a difficult issue very delicately. You're circumventing it, hoping that your audience will pick up on your meaning without your having to give a lot of uncomfortable details or explicit descriptions.

Maybe you're in a group and want to say something so that only one person in the group truly understands it, so you send a veiled message. Or you could be saying one thing with words, but your actions or facial expressions could be telling a different story, implying the truth or your real feelings on the subject.

You imply when you imbue your words with extra meaning that's not explicitly said. It doesn't just have to be in conversation. It can be crafted in writing as well through figurative language and carefully chosen phrasing, just as in spoken conversation.

How to Use "Infer"

When you infer, you do just the opposite of implying. You pick up on the message hidden "between the lines," so to speak. You deduce a subtle meaning from the metaphor, allegory, or symbolism in a story you are reading. Or you read the body language cues a person is giving you to come to a conclusion. For example, a glance at a clock and a raised eyebrow from your spouse during a family gathering might mean, "Can we leave this party now? I'm bored." You make an educated guess based on the available data.

Examples

Here are a few examples that show the differences in meanings behind the two words:

  • The manager implied that I was a bad risk.
  • I inferred from her remarks that she thought I was lazy.
  • I'm sorry that what I said implied a negative opinion about her artwork. I just wasn't sure what to think at the moment.
  • If researchers infer conclusions from bad survey data, an entire study might have to be redone because it is not accurate.

How to Remember the Difference

It can be challenging to keep similar words straight. Try this trick with "imply" and "infer": Look at the words alphabetically. "Imply" comes before "infer." The coded message that someone implies needs to come first, before the receiver can decode it and infer its meaning.

Practice Exercise

Give this practice exercise a go to make sure that you've got the concept:

  1. The reporters _____ in this article that an employee started the fire in the furniture store.
  2. I _____ from the article that the police have a suspect.

Answers

  1. The reporters imply in this article that an employee started the fire in the furniture store.
  2. infer from the article that the police have a suspect.

Sources

  • Groves, R. M., et al. "Survey Methodology." Wiley, 2009, p. 39.
  • Robins, Adrienne. "The Analytical Writer: A College Rhetoric," 2nd ed. Collegiate Press, 1996, p. 548.
  • Wasco, Brian. "Imply vs. Infer." The Write at Home Blog, 8 Feb. 2012.