INFER/IMPLY.

Mark Liberman provides the best discussion you are likely to see of the tangled history of these words, and specifically of the use of “personal infer,” the oldest example Mark could find being “Why, in the name of all that’s consistent, you don’t mean to infer that you love this fellow?” from John Brougham’s play Flies in the Web (Mark couldn’t find a date for the play, but it’s clearly before Brougham’s death in 1880). Mark’s conclusion:

So whatever is going on with infer as “imply”, it’s not just a recent mistake in linking similar words to complex concepts. There’s a long history of erratic specialization (from the original sense “bring in” to the much more limited meaning “deduce”) and sporadic generalization (from contexts where “deduce” might be taken to mean “suggest”).

I was amused to see had thought that the first comment is was classic prescriptivist panic: “You’re right it is interesting, but I’ll bet you’re not going to start using non-personal infer instead of ‘imply’ yourself, are you? There’s no reason to do so.” Danger! Danger! Unacceptable usage sighted and possibly defended—fire the torpedoes!… but it turns out it was by our old pal Arthur “A.J.P.” Crown, and was not intended as prescriptivist panic at all. Once again my lovely rhetoric is shot out of the sky!

Comments

  1. I have an alternate reading of that first comment: it’s like the observation (I don’t know who first made it) that H.L. Mencken’s The American Language consists of nearly two thousand pages about nonstandard Englishes, entirely written in impeccably prescriptivist English, even to scrupulously observing the much-debated shall/will rules. Those who most vigorously defend the right of people to write non-standard English rarely exercise the right themselves, just as those who push hardest for absurd prescriptive rules rarely follow them.

  2. Interesting that you don’t link to the actual discussion! It’s here, for the curious.

  3. Those who most vigorously defend the right of people to write non-standard English rarely exercise the right themselves
    While an interesting discussion might be had around that idea, people who bring it up almost never do so in an abstract, “isn’t that interesting” way; they are, like this fellow, using it as a stick to attempt to club the enemy with: “You say you don’t believe in standard English, but you’re using it yourself! Ha ha, gotcha!” Which is just silly.
    Interesting that you don’t link to the actual discussion!
    As Arte Johnson used to say, “Ve-e-ry interesting… But stupid!” I started to link the word “discussion,” then thought maybe I should add “at Language Log” and link that, and as you can see I wound up seeing something shiny and forgetting the whole thing. Thanks for pointing it out; the link is now added.

  4. rootlesscosmo says:

    Isn’t
    Infer the bastardy of Edward’s children (Richard III, Act 3)
    a use of what Mark LIberman calls “personal infer”? Richard isn’t asking Buckingham to reach the conclusion that Edward’s children are illegitimate, he’s asking him to hint or imply this to others.

  5. This is one of the rare instances I find myself, at least emotionally, on the side of the prescriptivists. It’s such an important distinction and so easily muddled.

  6. mollymooly says:

    @John Cowan: the condescension charge is hard to avoid without risking the Mandy Rice-Davies charge.

  7. I have just now drawn attention at Language Log to distinct senses of imply. It is well to be clear about these, especially when a similarly elusive distinction for infer is under discussion.

  8. Arthur Crown says:

    I’m slightly shocked that my comment was taken to be hostile (Rob G. is my current LLog name). You all are inferring a lot of stuff that I certainly didn’t mean to imply. John Cowan, that’s no alternate reading: I think it’s what I was saying, except not so well and without the Mencken. I don’t do prescriptivist gotchas, Language, I was pondering a question; it just shows I’m no good at perceiving how things sound (I was also in a hurry). Anyway, it is a reasonable point, so it’s too bad it was taken the wrong way.

  9. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    For what it’s worth, I first encountered this as a schoolboy in the late sixties, in a Times column by the late Bernard Levin (then very famous in England, now probably only known for having been the much younger Arianna Stassanopoulos-Huffington’s boyfriend), when he wrote a disparaging aside about the kind of people who didn’t know the diff between imply and infer. So if I am, in fact, a prescriptivist, I plead that brainwashing techniques were used on me as a child.

  10. Arthur:
    I took your comment to be hostile too (nice to know there’s one fewer prescriptivist on the internets than we thought).
    Your point is worth making, though. Since discovering descriptivism (i.e. linguistics) through LH and LL I’ve found it emancipating w/r/t my writing to know there’s really nothing wrong using THEY/THEM/THEIR as a singular neuter pronoun or LIKE as a conjunction and that the people who say there is are, to quote Geoff Pullum, “blithering windbags.” (That’s actually a little redundant, isn’t it?) I can follow my ear rather that non-existent rules. But in this case, with INFER and IMPLY, not only am I already so used to the prescriptvist recommended usages, but both words feel like they’re in the same register. (Maybe INFER is a just a little fancier, but then the only reason to have a character or narrator use it in the way prescriptivists deplore is to make fun of that character or narrator — in which case you, the author, are probably a prescriptivist yourself. TV writers do it all the time when they want to feel smart. Case in point, The Sopranos: “What are you inferring here, Carmela,” says Christoper, that thug, as though “getting at” wouldn’t be more natural to him than “infer” or “imply.” One of my favorite shows, and it’s written by blithering windbags. It seems I’ve digressed. Apologies.)

  11. So if I am, in fact, a prescriptivist, I plead that brainwashing techniques were used on me as a child.
    All the more reason to take up the cudgels now!

  12. Sorry, Arthur/AJP/Rob; I clearly misread your comment. But I’m so accustomed to, and irritated by, the standard prescripto tropes that I see them in every dark corner and around every bend.

  13. I’ve found it emancipating
    Yes, me too, jamessal; it’s helpful whereas despite its claim to the contrary prescriptivism isn’t, really. My daughter is both incredibly smart and dyslexic, and I can’t stand people laughing at her spelling.
    Wasn’t Christopher a part-time playwright? He might well have used ‘inferring’ (though maybe him being a playwright was pushing it a bit. On the other hand, Joe Orton was supposed to have been friends with the Kray twins, famous London thugs).

  14. Polly Glot says:

    Oh, absolutely no prob, Language. But it’s fun going under several names, you can see what people really think. What me, paranoid?

  15. Mollymooly, I don’t know what the Mandy Rice-Davies charge may be.

  16. Richard Hershberger says:

    I accept that the LL comment was not meant as a Gotcha!, but LH is right that this is a standard line of argument. I have two standard responses to it.
    The more significant is that English constantly presents us with choices. Often only one choice meets with favor among the “purists”. Occasionally the favored choice is inferior, and I will opt for the unfavored choice. But more often the favored choice is perfectly sound, and even better for certain registers. The idea seems to be that I cannot argue that both [A] and [B] are acceptable unless I personally use both [A] and [B]. This is just silly.
    To put it another way, the discussion is not about whether you or I should use a favored or unfavored choice. We should use whichever choice we prefer. The discussion is about how we should react to others’ choices. If we read or hear someone using an unfavored choice, should we correct that person, write a scathing letter to the editor, or at least feel quietly smug about our superior command of the language? Or should we recognize the range of choices available?
    My second response to the supposed Gotcha! is that I often choose to write self-consciously formally when discussing usage so as to preclude the ad hominem argument that I am merely defending my own inability to use “correct” English. This does, of course, allow the ad hominem argument of hypocrisy, but I prefer to fight that charge of the two. The intellectual emptiness of the prescriptivist position is rather nicely illustrated by this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

  17. Arthur & Polly Glot says:

    Richard Hershberger: The idea seems to be that I cannot argue that both [A] and [B] are acceptable unless I personally use both [A] and [B]. This is just silly.
    It’s not just silly, there’s an interesting explanation. What he thinks happens in his case is fully explained by Mark Liberman in today’s post on the same subject at LLog (with which I agree, for what it’s worth).
    @ John Cowan: Mandy Rice Davis, a nineteen-sixties prostitute, is famous in England for (amongst other things) having replied during the Profumo scandal that almost brought down the MacMillan government, “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?” when Viscount Astor had said he hadn’t availed himself of her services. It subsequently became in Britain a much used (and abused) defence of unproven accusations.

  18. Arthur & Polly Glot says:

    Richard Hershberger: The idea seems to be that I cannot argue that both [A] and [B] are acceptable unless I personally use both [A] and [B]. This is just silly.
    It’s not just silly, there’s an interesting explanation. What he thinks happens in his case is fully explained by Mark Liberman in today’s post on the same subject at LLog (with which I agree, for what it’s worth).
    @ John Cowan: Mandy Rice Davis, a nineteen-sixties prostitute, is famous in England for (amongst other things) having replied during the Profumo scandal that almost brought down the MacMillan government, “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?” when Viscount Astor had said he hadn’t availed himself of her services. It subsequently became in Britain a much used (and abused) defence of unproven accusations.

  19. @Richard Hershberger: I hope that you’re being ironic, or that I’m misunderstanding you. Your whole comment is a complaint about ad-hominem attacks, yet as far as I can tell, in its last sentence it becomes one itself. By what logic does the folly of certain prescriptivists — heck, even of all prescriptivists — say anything at all about the prescriptivist position?
    (BTW, is there really a single position that can be called “the prescriptivist position”?)

  20. In my case the prescriptivist position is to prefer usage which I (a) was taught at school lo these many years ago – “correct English” – or (b) was obliged by stylebooks to use during my working life, with (a) taking preference. Of course new words enter the language, and changed usages, but I don’t see great advantages in many of them. I particulartly hate the various new forms of “impact” and “impacted” – to me, the latter will always refer to an unpleasant dental problem.
    (As LH knows) I just won a discussion with an aviation website which had talked of an air traffic controller being able “to violate a pilot” – issue a notice of a violation of a rule. After some back and forth, they admitted that jargon had overtaken the clear meaning of the word, and that the jargon usage was wrong.
    Was I being prescriptivist ?

  21. “I just won a discussion with an aviation website which had talked of an air traffic controller being able “to violate a pilot” – issue a notice of a violation of a rule. After some back and forth, they admitted that jargon had overtaken the clear meaning of the word, and that the jargon usage was wrong.”
    Isn’t this an example of the “third way”? The reality that descriptivists are not laissez-faire slobs who let anything go? I long ago gave up protesting new usages, but even I would have backed you 100% on this one, because the usage does not make its meaning clear, and because it just sounds stupid.

  22. Wasn’t Christopher a part-time playwright?
    Yeah, aspiring screenwriter. But the only time they ever showed anything from one of his scripts was in Season 1 when he wrote “I manuged to get the drip on him” for “I managed to get the drop on him.” And it’s not just Christopher anyway: a lot of the characters use prescriptivist shibboleths (the whole character of Little Carmine, in fact, seems to be based on them).
    I hope that you’re being ironic, or that I’m misunderstanding you. Your whole comment is a complaint about ad-hominem attacks, yet as far as I can tell, in its last sentence it becomes one itself. By what logic does the folly of certain prescriptivists — heck, even of all prescriptivists — say anything at all about the prescriptivist position?
    Not only was Richard’s post clear and cogent (and a lot more than a rant against ad hominem attacks), but there’s nothing ad hominem about saying a particular belief or position is empty. That part of his post is a little more general than the rest, but it also happens to be true.
    Was I being prescriptivist ?
    I think so. Having been a former knucklehead, I happen to know that parolees often talk about “being violated” by their PO’s. The usage is actually so common (and clear) it would make you a dork in certain circles to snicker at the phrase “he violated my ass.”
    It sounds to me like you, Paul, objected to a useful phrase because A) you didn’t like it and B) it might, if intentionally misread, mean something other than what was obviously intended. That’s prescriptivism. (Though maybe not, in this instance, of the really nasty, boneheaded sort.)

  23. Richard Hershberger says:

    Replying to Ran (and gratefully acknowledging Jamessal’s comment) I didn’t complain about ad hominem attacks. I complained about ad hominem arguments. They often get confused, particularly as we often refer to an abbreviated “ad hominem”, but they are two different things.
    An ad hominem argument is a fallacy because it relies on irrelevant facts: “I dismiss your argument about global warming because your tie is ugly.” This is an extreme case, but “I dismiss your argument supporting this usage because you use this usage” is really no different.
    My comment about intellectual emptiness can, I suppose, be taken as an ad hominem attack, but it is an attack on the prescriptive position, not on the persons holding this position. This leaves open the possibility that they might be fine fellows of great learning, wit, and insight in other respects apart from this one blind spot.
    A true ad hominem attack would be “You hold this idiotic position, and therefore I conclude that you are an idiot.” The problem with this is that, apart from any considerations of rudeness, it is irrelevant to the discussion (even if true). It changes the topic from the merits of the argument to the merits of the arguer. It is not a logical fallacy, unless the conclusion about the merits of the arguer is then used to support the conclusion about the merits of the argument, which would beg the question.

  24. Jamessal: With respect, that seems to be an “anything goes” argument. I don’t think it has to become accepted usage just because criminals on parole, or another relatively quite small group, aviation people, mis-use it.

  25. Well, I’m “anything goes” sort of guy. If a group of people (and with 2.3 million people in prison in this country, the group we’re talking about ain’t that small) communicates effectively with a certain phrase or usage, who am I to say it’s wrong? As for “accepted usage,” I’m not really sure what that means. “To violate a pilot” is apt for one audience; “To issue a notice to pilot of a violation of a rule” is apt for another. To me, there’s value in both. No need to label one a “misuse.”
    I think you could maybe even define a prescriptivist as someone whose first urge when confronted with an unfamiliar linguistic phenomenon is to label it as somehow bad, or even try to suppress it, rather than try to understand and appreciate it.

  26. Well, I’m pretty sure Paul isn’t a prescriptivist of the tut-tut sort, and he does have a point: I’m sure there are air traffic controllers who have done time, but the Venn diagram of those who read air traffic controller communications and those who are intimately familiar with the knucklehead usage probably wouldn’t show much overlap, so the latter isn’t really relevant to the wording of the former. In this instance, I think “violate a pilot” would raise eyebrows and probably is worth changing.

  27. the Venn diagram of those who read air traffic controller communications and those who are intimately familiar with the knucklehead usage probably wouldn’t show much overlap, so the latter isn’t really relevant to the wording of the former.
    I’m not sure about that. The air traffic controller usage and knucklehead usage are identical, and my point in bringing up the latter was to show that there are a lot of people who communicate effectively with it, so there isn’t any objective sense in which it could be called “wrong” (to use’s Paul’s word). Now maybe you know more about the context in which the air traffic controller usage is being used (all I know is that “a website… had talked of it”), and thus are in a better position to know if it would raise eyebrows. I can’t argue with that; I just think that if air traffic controllers are in constant fear of being issued notices that they’ve violated some rule to the point that they would be talking about it frequently (the way parolees are), then it would make perfect sense for them to adopt a shorter phrase, and there would be nothing wrong with their using it to communicate with each other on a website.
    That said, I don’t mean to tar Paul a prescriptivist (certainly not of this sort: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-daum9-2008aug09,0,4695540.column — where do people get off writing to a professor of linguistics only so sneer at what he has to say about language? But I digress). But if I did come off a little zealous, Paul, I apologize.

  28. I’m sorry, that should be “if pilots are worried…” not air traffic controllers.

  29. No, you may be right; I was assuming that the usage Paul was objecting to was not controller jargon, but on reflection, I don’t know why I was assuming that. If the guy wrote it in the memo because that’s how he and the people to whom the memo was addressed use it, it could perfectly well have stayed, the purpose of language being communication, yada yada.

  30. @Richard Hershberger: What I’m saying is, your statement is an ad hominem argument. (Happy?) You’re complaining about something that certain/many/most/all/whatever prescriptivists do, and concluding something about the prescriptivist position. How is that logical?

  31. To clarify, the usage “violate the pilot” was in a weekly email and website aviation bulletin for general circulation (though obviously read by people with aviation interests). Thus it was not an internal memo, but public discourse.
    And the website’s style editor emailed me :
    “You make a good point. That seems to be one of these words that’s crept into aviation jargon to the extent that we’ve forgotten what it really means.”
    I suggest that’s a good way to express it – “..we’ve forgotten what it really means.”
    My position, I suppose, is that there is no reason to change the meaning of a word out of forgetfulness, ignorance, or laziness. I believe that diminishes the language, rather than enhancing it.
    And thank you, LH. I do try to make a case for my bouts of “prescriptivness”, which term, incidentally, appears to be perjorative. I would prefer simply “urging the use of correct English”. :-)

  32. Thus it was not an internal memo, but public discourse.
    Yeah, if I were the editor I probably would have changed it too. Most people don’t know that usage, so it might be confusing or at least temporarily jarring. BUT…
    I suggest that’s a good way to express it – “..we’ve forgotten what it really means.”
    I suggest that’s a terrible way to express it. First, if in a certain context (and of course words derive their meanings from context) a group of people are using “violate a pilot” to mean “issue a notice…” then in that context that’s what the phrase really means (it doesn’t keep some realer meaning hidden away somewhere just because in another more common context it would mean something else). Second, nobody’s forgotten anything; there isn’t a single air traffic controller in the country who would think the following referred to issuing notices: “The pilot was accosted by a serial rapist, and the pilot was then violated.”
    My position, I suppose, is that there is no reason to change the meaning of a word out of forgetfulness, ignorance, or laziness.
    Whether there’s a reason for it or not, those are the ways words change. Metathesis, apocope — these are the garbling of words and the lazy pronunciation of words; or, as John McWhorter puts it in his lecture series “The History of Language”: “laziness of the mouth” is responsible for a great deal of language change. The other ways in which language changes rarely involve more conscious deliberation (I would name them, or even give more apt examples, but I’m not a linguist, just a layman with a dabbling interesting who doesn’t have time to get his textbook — but I think my point comes across nonetheless).

  33. I should also add that in the instance we’re discussing there was nothing forgetful, ignorant, or lazy about the change. It arose to communicate more quickly.

  34. If they had said “ticket the pilot”, or even “bust the pilot”, for example, I would have had no objection. But “violate” has such a strong, specific sense, very often rape, that I think it’s simply not on to use it in any other sense.
    And shouldn’t be…as the style editor in fact agreed.
    And simply because words DO change meaning through forgetfulness, laziness, metathesis, apocope or whatever, I don’t believe that is any reason to accept it in such cases, without a fight.

  35. Arthur J. Krone says:

    Paul: I would prefer (to prescriptivist) simply “urging the use of correct English”
    Who’s going to decide what’s correct? You? The Pope?
    I live in a country where they have “experts” decide on what’s correct in their language (Norwegian). They recently — I may have told this story before, it is so pathetic — tried to change the Norwegian spelling of bacon to something like ‘baiken’, to make it conform to Norwegian spelling conventions. Everyone just told them to piss off, Norwegians being at heart a sensible bunch. Now, do you want to live like that?
    If you really want to be one, you’re going to have to live with being called a prescriptivist.

  36. That story warms my half-Norwegian heart. My people are a stubborn people. Must be all the lutefisk.

  37. There is a basic agreement on general English grammar – there must be, or chaos ensues.
    And the same for Norwegian.
    If “anything goes”, how is a language taught at any level, primary or TEFL ? So [me] or the Pope or Miss Brown with her class of five-year-olds are following widely accepted “rules” of usage. When there is a very broad consensus, the meaning or usage of words change. Until that consensus is ov erwhelming, I’
    ll stick to the generally accepted usage/meaning, and fight for it, for the sake of clarity.

  38. If “anything goes”, how is a language taught at any level, primary or TEFL ?
    Most languages are not taught at any level, and yet they have perfectly consistent grammars and no communication problems beyond those inevitable to human interaction. I think this is one reason for the disconnect between linguists (at least those of the traditional kind, who actually learned languages) and civilians: linguists are aware of the vast variety of human language and the fact that most of them are not even written down, let alone taught in school, so they realize how silly the idea that grammar classes are necessary is.

  39. I have to jump back in here for a moment. I still think that the use of “violate” in the context discussed was wrong, because it was going to be read by people who might easily misunderstand it. Had it been in a trade-only setting, or some other context in which all or even most of those who read it would understand the intended meaning, that would be fine.
    To me, this is still an excellent example of what the LanguageLog article and the CopyEditor’s Manifesto were talking about. The use of “violate” does seem wrong here, not intrinsically, but because of context and the nnegative effect it could have on clarity of communication.
    However, I must dissociate myself from Paul’s later comments. This is because I don’t agree with that sort of rigid prescriptivism and because if I were to be judged by those standards, my high school education would see me consigned to the “idiots” mob decried by someone else in the semicolon comments thread.

  40. Sigh. In the face of serried ranks of linguists, this civilian advances to the rear, admitting to being baffled by the vehemence of the arguments against him.
    My final shots over my shoulder – have many generations of teachers in many countries – the New Guinea jungles excepted – all been wrong to inculcate what was seen by them as standard grammar, spelling and usage ?
    Why are universities and business in the UK, at least, complaining that students and employees cannot write what they call correct English, because of the failure of teaching in primary and secondary schools ?
    Vanishes into the mist ….

  41. Hurls spear, shakes fist.

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