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Pardon my inference; your implication is showing

Mose heard recently from a fellow editor about use of the word infer ... and related matters.

Her question involved this sentence:

[The candidate] flatly denied [her opponent's] inferring that she would be engaged in “pay-to-play” politics.

“I was looking at this sentence ... and wanted to get your thoughts on the use of the word ‘inferring,’” the editor wrote. “In this case, it looks to me like this is not an appropriate use of the word. ... I don't think that [the candidate] could actually deny what someone else is inferring, as a person can infer whatever he or she wants from something. Does this make sense?”

Her concern made perfect sense.

You could “dispute,” but not “deny,” someone's “inferring,” but the writer probably meant “implying” – and even that's the wrong word.

Primary, of course, was the confusion over inferring, which is often mixed up with its evil twin, implying.

In this particular case, the candidate's opponent could have been inferring, but he more likely would have been implying, i.e., suggesting without really saying it. The context wasn't clear.

But it actually seemed as if the opponent was doing neither.

Here is Mose's response:

“In this case, denied is the wrong word. So is inferring.

“The listener or reader infers. The speaker or writer implies.

“But implying also wouldn't be the right word, because he didn't just suggest ‘pay for play’ – he flat-out alleged it. So ...

“[The candidate] disputed her opponent's allegation that she was engaged in ‘pay to play' politics.

“Or, more simply ...

“[The candidate] denied that she was engaged in ‘pay to play' politics.

“Whether her denial was made flatly or emphatically might be some license you extend to the writer who talked to her.“

Context is important, of course.

But be careful about using the words imply and infer in regard to a person's specific statements. Those words usually represent not objective fact, but the writer's subjective judgment about the speaker's/writer's intention or the listener's/reader's interpretation.

Reporting works better when we write what people say and ask them to clarify any uncertainty about their intent.

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