What, exactly, are you implying?

Flickr Creative Commons

Dictionaries, we’ve noted repeatedly, can evoke strong emotions. Take the reaction to the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary by Rex Stout’s famous detective Nero Wolfe: He ripped out the pages and burned them. As his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, said in the 1962 novel Gambit: “He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes.” Confronting a potential client, Wolfe demanded, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?” She did not, Wolfe took the case, and justice triumphed.

Both “imply” and “infer” effectively mean a hint at something. But “imply” means I’m hinting at it; “infer” means you deduced what I was hinting at. As Theodore M. Bernstein said in The Careful Writer: “The implier is the pitcher; the inferrer is the catcher.”

The mix-up of “imply” and “infer” seems to have taken hold about the time Wolfe burned his dictionary. It did not appear in the 1926 first edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, but the 1965 second edition says the misuse of “infer” for “imply” “is sadly common—so common that some dictionaries give imply as one of the definitions of infer without comment.”

Fast-forward 50 years, and usage authorities are still warning that the two get mixed up. Garner’s Modern American Usage says: “Don’t be swayed by apologetic notes and some dictionaries that sanction the use of infer as a substitute for imply. Stylists agree that the important distinction between these words deserves to be maintained.” It lists the misuse of “infer” for “imply” at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, still suitable for burning.

So just what do the dictionaries say? Let’s start with Merriam-Webster Unabridged, “built on the solid foundation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged,” as its website says.

It does, indeed, list “infer” as a synonym for “imply,” and uses “inference” in several of its definitions. It does not, however, list “imply” as a synonym for “infer,” though it uses “implication” in its definitions of “infer.” Instead, M-W Unabridged adds “compare imply” in a couple of definitions, meaning they are similar, but not the same. While some may consider that an endorsement of using “infer” instead of “imply,” it’s not a ringing endorsement.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which arose partly as a response to the outcry over Webster’s Third, has a usage note with “infer”: “Infer is sometimes confused with imply, but the distinction careful writers make between these words is a useful one.” (Full disclosure: This columnist is a member of the Usage Panel, but has not weighed in on this discussion.)

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one used by the Associated Press and many news organizations, doesn’t even hint at a connection between “imply” and “infer.”

But wait! Here’s The Oxford English Dictionary, the closest thing to a Bible for many people, in one definition of “infer”: “To lead to (something) as a conclusion; to involve as a consequence; to imply.” (Emphasis added.) Wolfe would have to spend hours, nay, days, burning this dictionary.

But wait again! Here’s a note under that definition: “This use is widely considered to be incorrect, esp. with a person as the subject.”

Not one of these dictionaries uses “infer” and “imply” interchangeably, as Wolfe so abhorred. (Perhaps he burned a good dictionary for no good reason.) Some warn that “infer” is sometimes used instead of “imply” but do not approve it.

Now here comes Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, in a usage note under “infer”:

Infer has been used to mean “to hint or suggest” since the 16th century by speakers and writers of unquestioned ability and eminence. … Despite its long history, many 20th-century usage guides condemn the use, maintaining that the proper word for the intended sense is imply and that to use infer is to lose a valuable distinction between the two words.

Although the claimed distinction has probably existed chiefly in the pronouncements of usage guides, and although the use of infer to mean “to suggest” usually produces no ambiguity, the distinction too has a long history and is widely observed by many speakers and writers.

Since dictionary.com uses RH as its base, many people will see this and say “So there!”  But even RH says the distinction is “widely observed.”

Here’s the implication: If you tell someone “I’m inferring that you will find my usage of that word condoned by the dictionaries,” you’re going to have to search through many to find that inference. The usage is not “wrong”; it’s just discouraged. Remember the distinction: You imply; I infer.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.