The Weekly Text, 9 September 2022: Common Errors in English Usage, Imply (vt), Infer (vi/vt)

This week’s Text is a worksheet on the use of the verbs imply and infer. This is a full-page worksheet with a reading of three longish compound sentences, and ten modified cloze exercises. The text derives from Paul Brians’ fine book Common Errors in English Usage–to which he allows cost-free access at his Washington State University website.

I myself was uncertain about the use of these two words until I saw the 1988 remake of the estimable 1959 film noir D.O.A. Dennis Quaid plays Professor Dexter Cornell (Edmond O’Brien played this character as Frank Bigelow in the original). At one point in the film, Professor Cornell is dealing with a preternaturally cheap hoodlum named Bernard. Bernard says to Cornell, “I don’t think I like what you’re inferring Mr. Cornell.” Cornell sneers at Bernard, “Implying. When I say it, that’s implying. How you take it, that’s inferring.” Bernard replies, “I see. Infer this.” Then true to form for a knuckle-dragger like Bernard, he punches Cornell in the mouth.

Lawrence Block, in his novel Small Town (page 301 in the William Morrow hardcover edition), which I believe was his last, Block has the august New York Times commit a similar error, using infer where imply is required. True to its form, the Times prints a correction the next day.

Why am I on about this, as they say in Great Britain? Because these are two important conceptual words which describe an extremely common, if elliptical, form of communication. In fact, if you want to teach literature at all, these are two words students must understand well, and therefore be able to use well–and, for heaven’s sake, accurately. One more time: so much of human communication occurs by implication and inference (to trot out the nouns) that it seems to me unlikely to overstate the importance of understanding these words and the concepts in communication they represent.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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