Infer vs imply

To lexis this week, again courtesy of Oliver Kamm’s column in The Times of Saturday February 15th. He highlights the verbs to infer and to imply, and here are my marker sentences:

Hugh often quotes Oliver Kamm, from which we can infer he tends to agree.

Hugh’s frequency of quoting Kamm would seem to imply agreement.

But this time I don’t – agree, that is. Kamm’s point this week is that the two are often interchanged, as in his example from his own newspaper –

“Although Woodward did not refer to Liverpool by name, he inferred that the Merseyside club’s failure to win…”

– and interchangeable in his (Kamm’s) opinion. “There is nothing wrong with our football correspondent’s usage…the evidence of its use is so widespread that it is highly likely to become standard English before long. Nothing will be lost to the language when it does.”

Hang on a second. There’s a clear difference between the two. As Kamm notes elsewhere in the article, to infer is to draw a conclusion from something, whereas to imply is to express indirectly or insinuate. To my mind that’s a pretty sizeable distinction – akin perhaps to take (infer) and give (imply). I truly hate to be a pedant and a prescriptivist in this way, but I reckon it’s unwise to elide meaning like that.

Take another couple of examples to prove my point:

She inferred that he wanted her to leave.

She implied that he wanted her to leave.

In the first instance here, she’s clearly taking notice of his body language, whereas in the second, she’s perhaps telling someone else indirectly that he isn’t happy. Quite a big difference, and one that would be lost if the two verbs are elided.

Kamm fights back on solider ground with his historical precedents. As a tactic it takes some beating. “ “Infer” has been used to mean “imply” since at least the 16th century”, he argues, and quotes John Milton, Walter Scott, and Merriam-Webster in support.

I’d respond, though, that the more I research incongruous usage, the more I find examples of just about anything in famous literature. People have written and said a lot of things in weird ways and I’d take a leap and say that’s a positive side effect of having a largely uncodified, historically little-regulated tongue. Nowadays, often for the sake of clarity, we have arrived at a semblance of agreement in terms of conventions about grammar and lexis. Even Kamm says he sticks to the ‘infer-means-draw-a-conclusion’ convention. Our modish ideas don’t by any means signify inflexibility, or that words can’t change their meanings, because of course they can and do. Maybe, though, we should take a measure of care and caution jumping to new conclusions prematurely about usage and meaning.

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