The Grammarphobia Blog

Suggestive language

Q: I had a difference of opinion with a British gentleman when I said I could “draw an implication” from a remark of his. He claimed I could only draw an “inference,” not an “implication.” I disagreed. Yes, he did the implying, but why couldn’t I draw an “implication” as well as an “inference” from his words?

A: We all know that to imply is to suggest or say something indirectly while to infer is to conclude or surmise from what is implied or suggested. So, to imply is to give a hint, and to infer is to take the hint.

Obviously, we can draw an inference; one definition of “infer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “to bring in or ‘draw’ as a conclusion.” In other words, to draw an inference.

But can we draw an implication, too? Let’s see.

The very old word “draw,” first recorded in Old English in the 800s, has dozens of meanings in modern English. These all originated from five general notions: of dragging, of attracting, of extracting, of stretching, and of delineating.

Several meanings of “draw” are in turn derived from the third notion above (that of extracting, removing, withdrawing, or otherwise taking away with you), including these:

(1) To deduce or infer. Most of the OED‘s citations for this usage of “draw” have to do with arriving at a conclusion or an inference.

(2) To frame, formulate, or lay down. This usage of “draw” has to do with making “comparisons, contrasts, distinctions, etc.,” the OED says.

(3) To evoke or elicit. This usage of “draw” has to do with extracting (or causing to come forth) such things as information, responses, and so forth. This even includes the meaning, as your British friend might say, of drawing a fox from a covert.

My feeling is that while we draw an inference; we do not draw an implication. To draw an inference is to extract it from what’s given and take it in. An implication is not taken in; it’s given out. It is one of the givens from which we extract (or draw) a conclusion (or inference).

English is not written in stone, however, and here you may disagree. But I’ll have to side with your friend on this one. He makes an implication, and from what he implies, you draw an inference. He may in fact deny that he’s implied anything. You can still infer (from what he HAS said) that he’s implied something.

I’d better stop now. I’m starting to sound like a character in a Marx brothers movie.

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