Imply vs. Infer

Commonly Confused Words

A speaker implies. A listener infers.

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).

See the usage notes below. Also see:

Examples

  • The manager implied that I was a bad risk. I inferred from her remarks that she thought I was lazy.
  • "I didn't mean to imply that I didn't like it. On the contrary, I think it's beautiful. It's just different, that's all."
    (P.C. Cast, Goddess of Spring. Penguin, 2004)
  • "When questions offer fixed alternatives, interviewers are instructed to get the respondents themselves to choose an answer; interviewers are not supposed to infer which answer respondents probably would want to give."
    (R.M. Groves et al., Survey Methodology. Wiley, 2009)

Usage Notes

  • "In a sense, these two words can be thought of as the opposite sides of a single coin. 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."
    (Adrienne Robins, The Analytical Writer: A College Rhetoric, 2nd ed. Collegiate Press, 1996)
  • Zack: You know, I saw this great thing on the Discovery Channel. Turns out that if you kill a starfish, it'll just come back to life.
    Sheldon: Was the starfish wearing boxer shorts? Because you might have been watching Nickelodeon.
    Zack: No, I'm almost sure that it was the Discovery Channel. It was a great show. They also said dolphins might be smarter than people.
    Leonard: They might be smarter than some people.
    Zack: Maybe we can do an experiment to find out.
    Sheldon: That's easy enough. We need a large tank of water, a hoop to jump through, and a bucket of whatever bite-sized treats you find tasty.
    Zack: I don't get it.
    Leonard: A dolphin might.
    Zack: Oh, I see. You guys are inferring that I'm stupid.
    Sheldon: That's not correct. We were implying it. You then inferred it.
    (Brian Smith, Jim Parsons, and Johnny Galecki in "The Justice League Recombination."The Big Bang Theory, 2010)
  • "You think it's being a pedant to insist on a difference between imply, 'to hint,' and infer, 'to draw a conclusion from'? (Correct: I infer that you are implying I am a pedant.)"
    (William Safire, "Whitewaterese." The New York Times, August 28, 1994)

Practice Exercise

(a) The reporters _____ in this article that an employee started the fire in the furniture store.



(b) I _____ from the article that the police have a suspect.

Answers to Practice Exercise

(a) The reporters imply in this article that an employee started the fire in the furniture store.

(b) I infer from the article that the police have a suspect.