Infer vs. imply?

The verb imply means ‘to hint or suggest in an indirect manner.’ The verb infer means ‘to deduce from evidence or reasoning.’

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What is the difference between infer and imply?

Writers frequently ask whether they can use the word infer and imply interchangeably, as they appear to function similarly in sentences. For instance, we often read phrases like “they inferred” or “they implied,” or “which infers” and “which implied.” 

But while we can use these verbs to cite or explain, they actually reference different actions. After all, only a speaker or writer can imply something. The reader or listener infers

What can be implied?

When someone implies something, they are hinting or suggesting an idea without making an outright statement. Any idea can be implied through indirect statements, speech cues, or signaling, but the suggested information is never spoken aloud. 

What can be inferred?

When someone infers, it means they’ve drawn a conclusion about something implicitly or explicitly communicated. The hallmark of an inference, or the conclusion produced from inferring, involves reason or evidence on the part of a reader or listener.

What does imply mean?

The verb imply means ‘to express, make evident,’ or ‘indicate by logic’ through indirect statements. For example, 

  • “The report implied the pandemic might last longer than expected.” 
  • “The student cleverly implied that her teacher forgot to assign word lists.”
  • “Careful writers should not imply bias within news articles.” 
  • “A storefront filled with backpacks and pencils implies a back-to-school sale.” 

Synonyms

Allude, hint, entail, indicate, involve, insinuate, intimate, mention, refer, signal, suggest. 

Antonyms

Announce, declare, delineate, describe, explain, proclaim. 

Etymology of imply

The word imply stems from Middle English implien, where it derived from Old French emplier (‘to enfold’) and Latin implicāre (‘to entangle’). According to Lexico, the Latin word implicāre consists of the prefix in- (‘in’) and -plicare (‘to fold’). 

What does infer mean?

The verb infer means ‘to conclude or deduce from evidence or reasoning,’ or ‘to indicate by logic.’ For example, 

  • “Social media apps track user interactions to infer a preferred advertising experience.”
  • “When the editor mentioned a ‘widget,’ I inferred they were using WordPress.” 
  • “Based on the litter box in the hallway, we can infer there’s a cat in the house.” 
  • “Annual physicals allow physicians to infer the general health of their patients.”

Synonyms

Conclude, conjecture, decide, deduce, derive, educated guess, extrapolate, gather, hypothesize, judge, reason, surmise, theorize, understand. 

Etymology of infer

The word infer originated with Latin īnferre (‘to bring in’), which consists of the prefix in- (‘in’) and ferre (‘to bear’). The verb did not reach English vocabularies until the 15th century, where it initially meant ‘to bring about’ or ‘to inflict.’ 

How to use infer vs. imply in a sentence?

As outlined by Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU), the correct use of infer means ‘to deduce from evidence’ and ‘to reason from premises to a conclusion.’ Meanwhile, GMEU recommends using implyto hint at’ or ‘to suggest’ (Garner 510–511). 

Published examples of imply

  • “A recent column in the Seattle Times has implied that people in some neighborhoods of Seattle have an irrational fear of crime… “ –– King 5 
  • “The singer’s concert recordings have always had a power that her studio outings could only imply.” –– The New York Times
  • “Elon Musk implies that Tesla stock is still too high at top German award ceremony.” –– Forbes Innovation

Published examples of infer

  • “When people encounter it, they infer nothing about gender. This makes singular “they” a perfect pronoun…” –– The New York Times
  • “This challenges a core premise of polling, which is that you can use the responses of poll takers to infer the views of the population at large…” –– Vox
  • “Backers may infer that big, early donations to a crowdfunding campaign came from friends and family—not objective strangers.” –– The Wall Street Journal 

Writing tip:

If you’d like to imply something in your writing, start by incorporating discourse markers and conditional statements. For a more literary approach, try using similes and metaphors

FAQ: Related to imply vs. infer

Can I substitute imply for infer?

While researching the differences between infer and imply, you’re bound to find dictionaries that claim the verbs are synonyms. However, GMEU explicitly advises writers to avoid any “apologetic notes” that “sanction the use of infer as a substitute for imply” (511). 

How can an inference be synonymous with an implication?

The conclusion drawn from someone’s indirect suggestion is called an “implication,” but we can also call it “innuendo,” an “insinuation,” or even an “inference.” Why? Because an inference is an audience’s deduction of a statement as long as it derives from reasoning and evidence. 

Nonetheless, implied ideas are not always compatible with inferences because not all conclusions derive from logic and fact-based evidence. English provides other verbs that can imply opinions or beliefs, such as:

  • Assumeto accept something as valid without proof. 
  • Suppose: to believe something to be true.
  • Presume: to believe something to be true with uncertainty. 

Additional reading: imply vs. infer

If you enjoy learning about similar terms like imply vs. infer, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on topics like:

Test Yourself!

Imply and infer are commonly confused words with very different meanings. See how well you know the difference between imply and infer with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. To __________ is to hint or suggest in an indirect fashion.
    a. Imply
    b. Infer
    c. A and C
  2. To __________ is to deduce from evidence and reasoning. 
    a. Imply
    b. Infer
    c. A and C
  3. “Infer” and “imply” are similar words with the same __________. 
    a. Definitions
    b. Prefixes
    c. Pronunciations
    d. Suffixes
  4. Which of the following is not synonymous with imply?
    a. Allude
    b. Insinuate
    c. Involve
    d. Theorize 
  5. Which of the following is not synonymous with infer?
    a. Judge
    b. Reason
    c. Hint
    d. Gather
  6. A stranger using a computer says, “I’m going to log out of Facebook for now.” What did they imply? 
    a. They will log back into Facebook at another time. 
    b. They are avoiding someone online. 
    c. They have an upcoming exam. 
    d. They watched a documentary about the harmful effects of using social media too much. 
  7. Which of the previous answers would have been an inference? 
    a. A 
    b. A and C
    c. B, C, and D
    d. None of the answers

Answers

  1. A
  2. B
  3. B
  4. D
  5. C
  6. A
  7. C

Sources

  1. Crown, J. “The Downside of Crowdfunding Campaigns That Start Off Strong.” The Wall Street Journal, WSJ, 30 Oct 2020. 
  2. Garner, B. “Infer and imply.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 510–511. 
  3. Infer.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  4. Infer.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  5. Infer.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  6. Inference.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  7. Imply.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  8. Imply.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  9. Manjoo, F. “It’s Time for ‘They.'” The New York Times, NYTimes, 10 Jul 2019.
  10. Matthews, D. “One pollster’s explanation for why the polls got it wrong.” Vox, Vox Media, 10 Nov 2020. 
  11. Russunello, G. “The Special Place Where Ella Fitzgerald Comes Alive.” The New York Times, NYTimes, 1 Oct 2020.
  12. Suttner, J., et al. “Is Mean World Syndrome affecting how you view your community?King 5, King 5 Media Group, 12 Jul 2018.