Infer or Imply: The Importance of Using Precise Words

I recently wrote a blog about the  journalist’s responsibility to be specific with their words – the topic at hand was micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution. Ironically, my failure to use precise words taught me a lesson.

A reader disagreed with my position, and took issue with my assuming what he would infer. Here’s my imprecise sentence:

The inferred idea, that a disenchanted Australian blacktip longed to swim in cooler waters, and reasoned to fulfill his dream in future generations by making shark babies with a common blacktip, is as nonsensical as it sounds.

He said, “I read the article, and this was not what I “inferred”. Who is doing this inferring that you’re talking about?”

I told him I should hire him as my editor.

My hasty word choice created unnecessary confusion and led my audience away from the central point. I was kicking myself too, because I’d recently underlined Zinsser’s command, “Use precise verbs.” I quickly changed the sentence to better reflect my intention.

The implied idea, that a disenchanted Australian blacktip longed to swim in cooler waters…

My amendment helped, but the sentence was still wrong. The sentence no longer assumes something of the reader, but it’s still not clear who’s doing the implying: the author or the researcher. I rewrote my sentence again.

Ms. Morgan’s [the researcher] implied idea, that a disenchanted Australian blacktip longed to swim in cooler waters…

The sentence is far from perfect, but at least it’s finally precise. I rewrote the opening clause three times; I wonder how much better the sentence could have been if I’d rewritten it three times? What about the whole post? Again, Zinsser offers sound advice:

With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.

I’m usually so eager to finish my task and move on to something else that I’m reluctant to rewrite and seek verbal precision. Not anymore.  I’ll be more careful to know exactly what my words mean and make the effort to choose the most precise language available.

I found this interesting little history on the infer vs. imply debate.

Infer  has been used to mean “to hint or suggest” since the 16th century by speakers and writers of unquestioned ability and eminence: The next speaker criticized the proposal, inferring that it was made solely to embarrass the government.  Despite its long history, many 20th-century usage guides condemn the use, maintaining that the proper word for the intended sense is imply and that to use infer is to lose a valuable distinction between the two words. [source]

While it could be argued that the words are interchangeable, seeking precision compels me to maintain the clear distinction and choose the more exact word. For a more direct statement on the issue, read this Infer vs. Imply post.

Keep discovering writing.


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