Infer vs. Imply: Taking the Guesswork Out of Their Use

The words infer and imply sound similar, but in a way, they actually have opposite meanings. These verbs are not exactly antonyms for one another. Instead, the difference lies with the source of the action that is taking place. Understanding that is the key to being able to correctly decide whether to use infer vs. imply in conversation or writing.

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What Does Infer Mean?

The word infer means to draw a conclusion from available information. When you are presented with facts or opinions and you think through the information to figure out what it means or what you can surmise from it, that is what it means to infer. This action takes place inside a person's mind.

  • Who can infer? someone who interprets information to reach a conclusion
  • What is an example? drawing a conclusion from an observation (It's hot in the house, so the air conditioner must either be turned off or broken.)

Alternate forms include the words inferred (past tense) and inferring (present participle). The word infers should be used for third-person singular point of view (he, she, one).

What Does Imply Mean?

The word imply refers to the action of indirectly expressing meaning to someone else. When you want to get a message across to someone without directly saying what you mean, that is what it means to imply. In order to imply something, one has to be sending a message to another person in an indirect way. The message can be sent intentionally or unintentionally, using words, symbols or actions.

  • Who can imply? someone who is sending a message
  • What is an example? using tone of voice to hint at dissatisfaction rather than specifically stating it. (What a tiny little portion. It's a good thing I was not actually hungry when I took the time to come in here and order a meal.)

Alternate forms include the words implied (past tense) and implying (present participle). The word implies is appropriate for third-person singular perspective (he, she, one).

Memory Tricks for Infer vs. Imply

When deciding which word to use, you might not always have time to stop and think through the definitions. Don't just guess and hope that you are correct! Instead, use these simple memory tips to help you quickly choose the correct term.

  • infer starts with "in." Making an inference is something you do inside your own mind.
  • imply begins with "im." Think of it like this: When I'm talking that's when I can imply something.

How to Use Imply and Infer in a Sentence

Seeing examples of infer and imply in action in sentences can further help you differentiate between the two terms.

Sample Sentences With Forms of Imply

The sample sentences below demonstrate correct usage of the word implies, as well as alternate forms of the term. Notice that the word always references the actions of someone who is sending a message.

  • I don't want to imply that anything inappropriate is going on, but Rachel has been absent from work a lot this month.
  • I don't want to have to tell her to stop wearing that ugly dress to work but she doesn't seem to be picking up what I am trying to imply.
  • I'm not trying to imply anything by this, but I just thought you should know that people are talking.
  • Sarah implied that you should act quickly if you want to be considered for the job.
  • I thought I was doing a pretty good job implying that I don't want to go out of town this weekend, but Bill still seems to think that I'm excited about the trip.

Example Sentences With Forms of Infer

The following example sentences illustrate ways the word infer (and alternate forms) can be used correctly. Here, the word always refers to an action taking place in the mind of someone who is interpreting information that has been received from another source.

  • After reviewing family photo albums, I can infer that my sister Theresa must be the family photographer. She isn't in any of the images!
  • Since you have not answered my texts for the last few days, I have to infer that you don't want to communicate with me.
  • What should I infer from the employee survey and customer satisfaction research results?
  • Based on what my boss said, I inferred that I have to act quickly if I wish to be considered for the promotion.
  • Since you don't seem to be able to give me a straight answer about where you were after school, I am inferring that you must have been misbehaving.

Infer vs. Imply: Other Easily Confused Words

There are many commonly confused words in the English language, including some that can easily get mixed up with infer and imply.

  • deduce (verb) - close synonym for infer, though is limited to using a logical, scientific approach; means to review facts and reach a logical conclusion
  • inference (noun) - noun result of the verb to infer; something that has been inferred becomes an inference
  • insinuate (verb)- close synonym for imply, but with a negative connotation; means to make a negative indirect suggesting or accusation
  • refer (verb) - sounds similar to infer but is closer in meaning to imply; means to allude or mention to something, in a somewhat more direct way than just to imply

Learn the Difference Between Similar Words

There are many similar words in the English language. Some, like homophones, are extremely close matches. Others, like imply and infer are just similar and dissimilar enough that it can be tough to tell them apart. Take the time to learn how to tell the difference between some other similar-sounding words, such as evoke and invoke. The more you learn about differentiating words that are easily confused, the stronger your vocabulary will become.