Article published in:Meaning in the History of English: Words and texts in context
Edited by Andreas H. Jucker, Daniela Landert, Annina Seiler and Nicole Studer-Joho
[Studies in Language Companion Series 148] 2013
► pp. 99–128
Enforcing or effacing useful distinctions?
Imply vs. infer
This paper examines the development of infer and imply from their first uses in the fifteenth century to the present, using the EEBO and COHA corpora. Both words have more complex histories than the prescriptive rule regulating them would suggest, and their development illustrates the movement towards subjective and intersubjective meanings often seen in semantic change. Both words began with an ‘impersonal entail’ sense, which developed into a ‘personal suggest’ sense for imply, and possibly for some instances of infer. Two other paths to the proscribed ‘suggest’ sense of infer become noticeable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First, the ‘deduce’ sense of infer started to be used in contexts in which someone both presumably made an inference and reported that inference. Second, infer began to be used to soften possibly face-threatening statements. The rise of the prescriptive rule, however, likely effaced, rather than encouraged, this nascent distinction.
Published online: 18 December 2013