Which Word Wednesday: Imply vs. Infer

By December 14, 2011 language No Comments

As much as I enjoy learning about words and communicating through writing and speaking, I can’t call myself an expert communicator. Too often I choose the wrong word and send the wrong message . . . and once it’s out there, it’s difficult to adjust (unless I have lots of grace in the bank with the audience!).

But even the most carefully crafted message can be improperly decoded. In the end, both the sender and the receiver must work together for good communication and understanding. That’s what makes relationship so wonderfully unpredictable!

Today’s Which Word Wednesday match up is all about communication. Let’s start with the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

imply :: verb
strongly suggest the truth or existence of (something not expressly stated)

infer :: verb
deduce or conclude (information) from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements

Here we have two actions related to the communication and processing of information. I think of imply as something I do when I communicate and infer as something I take in when others communicate. Ron Evans says the same in his The Artful Nuance: “Roughly, speakers imply, but hearers infer.”1

In both of cases, communication can be either helped or hindered. If I am implying something without saying it outright, a deeper communication can be reached, if the receiver actually catches what I mean. This is the classic “beating around the bush” form of communication. But if the recipient doesn’t catch what I’m implying, I may assume understanding where there is none.

Likewise, if I correctly infer that someone is implying something to me beyond what the words state, I can gain deeper insight. But if I infer something the sender never intended, the result could be disastrous.

What’s my WWW verdict? Straightforward communication is best, but not always easy.

What’s your verdict? Do you have regular communication blunders? When is the last time you infer something that wasn’t implied? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 126.

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