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Are you inferring that I'm stupid?

I'll never forget the day that the brash young (older than I, but retrospectively oh so young) manager burst into my office, demanding to know something: Are you inferring that my style was wrong? For a fraction of a second I was confused. Then I understood. Mike had misused infer for imply.


What did this one episode show me about Mike? At the time, I had only two years of college before dropping out, so that I could pursue ... drifting. Asked at around that age (mid-late 20s) what I wanted to do with my life, I would say something like, "Be happy." In some far-off corner of my own beknighted mind, I knew that I was not happy, although it would be years before I realized that I was mired to the kneecaps, nay, the beam, in depression.

What does all this have to do with what I had just learned about Mike? I give this history only to show you a glimpse of where I stood at that point, being at the time a word processor at a law firm. Being a word processor was fine with me, and my plans extended to continuing that so that I could pay my rent and feed my cat and, of course (but only if pressed), at some point find or discover or stumble upon or somehow accrue "happiness."

Some portion of a boundless inferiority in me stemmed from my inchoateUnspoken; in this case, even unconscious. belief that "everyone else"—if he were a manager, anyway—must have completed college. For Mike to have used "infer" for "imply" to me must have meant, therefore, either that (a) he had completed college, but college isn't all it's cracked up to be; (b) he had completed college but somehow during that stint avoided becoming educated; or (c) Mike was stupid.

Now, that's a serious and highly un-pc term to call somebody, stupid, but recollect the circumstancial soil from which my conclusions sprang (like Juno from her father's forehead, not). I was young, depressed, and un- or at least but partially educated, yet I never would have mistaken imply for infer, or vice versa. Had I had no college at all I would not have made that substitution. Had I dropped out of high school ... Had I been sniffing glue ... well, I think you get my point.

If you take nothing else from this example, take this: Conclusions such as the ones I elaborated will be drawn by people who are neither young, depressed, nor uneducated (and including many other traits) if you repeat what Mike said, or come up with similar inexcusable errors.

Not all mistakes are inexcusable. But for native speakers of the English language, that one is.

To infer is something that goes on within, a part of your thought processes. People sometimes drop hints to help a person arrive at a conclusion, so that the recipient may infer something. My mother was adept at this, dropping pointed hints. Pointed as little arrows. Pulling back on the bow and loosing the arrow she implied and I, dutiful and guilt-clad daughter, inferred the Point. Right in the chest.

But inferring needn't always have a manipulative hint-dropper (-shooter?) at its helm. In the process of drawing a conclusion, you might grow your own inferences. In fact I'm sure you do.

For example, if you see your coworkers, called one by one by the manager, disappear into the manager's office and, on exiting a few minutes later, start to clean out their desks, every one of them, and, hesitantly at first, and then with increasing urgency, you begin cleaning your own desk out without having yet been called to the manager's office, you have inferred something.

To imply is to send rather than receive the arrow. Again it causes an internal thought process, this time in the other direction. (I am purposely not explaining this technically, but, looking back, realize I may yet have to resort to that.)

If I say that I cannot say one way or the other what the outcome of my countersuit against my former employer might be, I am implying that the countersuit has been settled. You may catch the implication, but you create the inference in your own mind.

Okay, I don't think this is working. I'd better get technical. What is the real difference between these two verbs, imply and infer?

To infer is to derive a conclusion from what one already knows, including knowledge so new it is still covered by spittle from the speaker's lips. Even so fresh, it's still your knowledge. In arriving at the inference, one may use inductivecomposed of multiple observations or deductivebased on two or more premises, be they true or false reasoning. (Thank you, Wikipedia. If and when I get a few links in, I will surely link out to you.)

To imply is to be diplomatic—to express or convey indirectly (even my mother did that, with her indirect little pointed arrows that, like boomerangs, may have wandered but eventually homed right in). Instead of saying, "Your hair looks like it just got mowed by a weed-whacker," you say, "Wow! You're right in style!" But come to think of it, maybe that's a tad too indirect.

All of this sounds like head games, and often they are. Think of two guys behind bars who daren't appear to be communing, lest they thought to be sharing drugs, which in this instance, which I cooked up, they would like to do. If Convict A wants to buy from his bro' for the first time, he may imply: "Are you holding?" or, even shorter, "Holding?" (Sorry about the hopelessly out-of-date lingo but I haven't been active in the field for a spell.) Convict B, who wants to have Convict A for a customer, may infer from the terse query that Convict A wants to and is willing to and, very importantly, is safe to buy. (That last inference may or may not be based on true premises.) In the hushed exercise yard of the prison (as without), one implies [out] and one infers [within].

If the exchange was not smoothly or expertly done, a watching guard might also make an unwanted (by the convicts, anyway) inference.

But at least he won't infer they're stupid.

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