Friday, June 22, 2012

Whither "imply"/"infer"?

Many of us grad-school or academic types have another academic field we're into in our spare time, something that tends to be the polar opposite of what we actually study. My girlfriend's is medieval history, while other friends of mine take up astronomy or music theory or statistics. Call them our academic mistresses, maybe.  Mine is language, specifically usage and the fascinating, constant struggle of proscriptivism against descriptivism.

A popular pursuit in these circles is drawing attention to typical usage "mistakes" that people make and then debating whether it's truly a mistake (a typical proscriptivist position) or simply a reflection of changing language (usually argued by descriptivists). I usually come down on the proscriptive side of things; a good example is the use of "less" and "fewer". Standard English usage holds that "less" applies to continuous quantities, while "fewer" applies to discrete ones. We have less water but fewer buckets, less money but fewer coins. That's a meaningful and necessary distinction that ought to be preserved.

I'm not strictly proscriptivist all the time, most notably in the usage of "whom". Sometimes it's preferable to use "whom" just because it would sound incorrect not to: "to who it may concern" is clearly wrong. Most of the time, though, we don't lose any clarity of information or syntax by using "who" where "whom" really should go, and the language has evolved to figure that out. "Whom are you visiting?" is grammatically "correct" but sounds pedantic and non-conversational; "Who are you visiting?" is "incorrect" but easily understood to mean exactly the same thing. But that's the exception to my rule of grammatical proscriptivism.

The usage issue where I'm most proscriptivist of all, though, is one I didn't even realize was an issue until recently: the confusion of "imply" and "infer". It was odd to me, when I first arrived on the usage "scene," that these words would be confused at all. "Lay" and "lie" are probably the champion pair of incorrect usage, which makes sense because their conjugations overlap so extensively. "Affect" and "effect" present another source of confusion, and that one makes sense too because those words are pronounced nearly identically.

But "imply" and "infer"? Do people actually mess these up? They're clearly not pronounced the same way. Sure, they're spelled a little similarly in that they're the same length and start with the same letter, but by that logic, the English-speaking world should be confusing "brain" and "bloat" too. And they don't mean close to the same thing. To imply is to suggest; to infer is to guess or deduce. Sure, they interact, in that if Adam implies an unspoken opinion, Brian can infer what Adam meant. Again, though, if we're prone to confusing interacting verbs, how come we never mix up "throw" and "catch"?

It seems trivially easy to use these words correctly--much easier than, say, "lay" and "lie"--and until I started paying attention to usage experts, I never knew there was any difficulty at all in using them. Apparently there is: Lexicon Valley, in a podcast about a controversial dictionary, refers to the "imply"/"infer" confusion as if it's a common grammatical mistake. Garner's Modern American Usage, my favorite style guide, has multiple paragraphs on it. A quick Google search of "imply and infer" returns more than seven million hits.

Here's a quote from the second one: "These two words, which originally had quite distinct meanings, have become so blended together that most people no longer distinguish between them." Is that true? Do people really "no longer distinguish" between a pair of words that don't at all mean the same thing? And are there any theories about how they got so "blended"?

Many common usage errors came from somewhere, and it's apparent that, while incorrect, it's conceivable that someone would make them. Some, I'll even condone, if the descrptivist argument is convincing enough. But I can't condone mixing up "imply" and "infer". It doesn't even make sense how it would become so widely done in the first place.

Currently listening: Everything Under the Sun, Jukebox the Ghost

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