GrammarPhile Blog

Drink-Driving; Infer and Imply

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Aug 21, 2012 5:35:00 AM

Two unrelated topics today:

Drunk driving v. drink-driving.
Did you know that what goes for drunk driving in America is known as drink-driving in Britain? That's right - so be careful when editing We need harsher drink-driving penalties for MPs. If it's British, it's correct.

In America it'd be written We need at least some drunk driving penalties for congressmen, don't you think? This American form--drunk driving--exemplifies hypallage (hy-PAL-ah-jee) because it is the driver, not the driving, that is drunk. Other examples of hypallage: black colleges, handicapped parking, overhead projector, and well-educated home.

Infer v. imply.
We ran into the conflict in usage of infer and imply again recently. That experience combined with recent mail from readers prompts us to write again about the distinction. We hope you can use this at your Friday staff meeting!

The infraction came in the question Well, it's really inferred in the bylaws, isn't it? The speaker, always wanting to be correct, and usually successful at being so, immediately winced, looked around the table, and in a subtle expression that only he and I understood, apologized if only by his sheepish expression. He knew he meant to say It's implied in the bylaws. But did anyone else at the table know the difference? Did anyone care? Had you been there, would you have noticed?

As the professional writer you are, you should!

Usage, which tends to break down distinctions in some parts of language, has built up a clear distinction here--one as clear as that between give and take, which indeed it resembles.

Imply is a word for the transmitting end, and infer is a word for the receiving end, of the same process of deduction. The relation between an implication and an inference is that between printer's type and paper: the first delivers an impression, and the second accepts it.

The physical example of course omits the presence of a mind giving or taking the impression. To such a mind smoke implies (according to the proverb) fire; so that when you see or smell smoke you infer fire. Imply means to express indirectly or fold in; infer means draw from. Hence the implications unfolded by evidences or clues prompt us to the inferences that we draw from them.

The confusion in usage reaches to unexpectedly high places. A politician campaigning for the presidency says I am not going to discuss what the Secretary said, because it is classified--but the inference was that the President and the Vice President were going along with the proposition.

In a best-selling thriller, you find the same confusion: The defense is trying to infer that the prosecution is trying to conceal something / I know you did not actually say it . . . but you have plainly inferred it. / And surely you do not mean to infer that it would be an unjust verdict if X. were acquitted?

Of course the implication of these sentences may be that the author was only reproducing the language of trial lawyers, for verisimilitude; or is that too hasty an inference?


Topics: hypallage, infer, imply

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