Imply or Infer?

Jul 14, 2020 | Posted by Jennifer


Imply or infer? Both of these words look similar and have related meanings, but unfortunately for many people the similarities lead to confusion about which word to select. The differences are subtle. In essence it comes down to direction. I like to think about it in terms of a game of catch. Let me clarify.

Let’s start with the word imply. Visiting, I see that the word is derived from the Latin word implicare and is composed of two parts: “im-,” a form of the Latin preposition in-, meaning in, upon, or into, and “ply,” which comes from the Latin root plicare, which means “to fold.” According to my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, the word is a verb that means “to say or express indirectly.” To imply something means to suggest an idea about something. In a game of catch, the word imply would correspond to the person throwing the ball. That person initiates the process by “tossing” out a suggestion (implying something). By the way, not only people but also things can make implications.

Perhaps an example is in order:

Her artistic and delicious cakes imply many hours spent in the kitchen polishing and perfecting her recipe.

The fact that her cakes are so beautiful and taste so good is what is testifying to the baker’s dedication to her craft, but it isn’t explicitly stated that she actually has spent all of that time in the kitchen. Her cakes do.

Now let’s move to the word infer. According to Etymonline, this word is also a verb and is also composed of two parts: in-, and ferre, which means “to carry” or “to bear.” Again, consulting my American Heritage Dictionary, the definition of infer is “to conclude from evidence or premises.” Think of infer as corresponding to the catcher or receiver of the ball. Here’s an example:

When the baker mentioned that she trained at the Culinary Institute of America, I couldn’t help but infer that her cakes must taste fabulous.

In this sentence the person who learns of the baker’s training concludes from the evidence given (but not the taste of the cakes themselves) that the baker must make delectable cakes. The baker herself never explicitly states that her cakes are delicious. The person she is speaking to (the “catcher” or “receiver”) makes that inference based on the baker’s training.

Imply and infer are most certainly related. If you can keep in mind the direction that each verb travels, then you will be sure to keep them straight and use them with confidence. Now, does anyone have a hankering for some cake?


                                                                                      Works Cited
Berube, Margery S., editor. The American Heritage Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin, 1991.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

Live Chat with IEW