Continuing my series demystifying commonly confused words…

Imply / Infer

Imagine a house. Probably semi-detached suburban; definitely well-kept. It has a garage and a drive. Across the front end of the drive, at knee height, is a chain (it may well have spiky diamond-shaped bits between the links). A small child could step over it. It could not possibly keep anybody out if they wanted to get in.

There is no sign saying ‘Keep Out’. There is no 8-foot fence with barbed wire and a padlocked gate. The owners are not telling you or forcing you to keep away. But… every link on that chain is implying that you should.

The owners give out a strong impression. They imply. (Spot that they both begin with the same three letters.)

When you see that house with that little chain, you take in that information; you infer that they don’t want you to step onto their bit of land.

So… to imply is to give an impression; to infer is to take in information and form an opinion.

Let’s say I have invited you to an event. If you reply, ‘A gherkin-themed party? Right… I’ll have to… um… check my diary,’ I might infer that you a) don’t like gherkins, b) don’t like parties, or c) just think that’s a bit too weird.

In this case, you give out the signals (you imply that this party just isn’t your thing) and I draw my own conclusions (I infer).

Imply and infer are used when information is not certain. Things that are implied or inferred might or might not be true, and are always open to interpretation.

When the police issue a statement saying: ‘A 37-year-old woman is helping us with our enquiries,’ we may all infer that she was involved in the crime. But the words are deliberately chosen to avoid saying so.

So, the police give out a message (implying not very much, as it happens) and we infer. But we might be wrong.

If you still aren’t sure of the difference between imply and infer, it is best not to use them at all. Suggest will do instead of imply. Deduce or conclude are just fine instead of infer. (Assume is close, but that usually means to come to a conclusion with no evidence. To infer, you have to have some sort of reason for inferring.)

Its / It’s

I’m willing to bet that mixing up its and it’s is the most common mistake in writing. And while readers might be able to understand you well enough, the two words do mean different things.

It’s with an apostrophe is short for it is or it has. There is never any other meaning. For example:

I love the sky when it’s stormy. [= … it is stormy.]

It’s been a difficult year. [= It has been…]

The car needs fixing – it’s leaked oil all over the drive. [= … it has leaked…]

If you find yourself using it’s with an apostrophe, try saying your sentence with it is or it has instead. Does one of those make perfect sense? Then you are right – stick with it’s. Does it sound like nonsense? Then you need its (no apostrophe).

Its without an apostrophe means ‘the next thing mentioned belongs to the thing already mentioned’ So it carries a lot of weight for such a small word! To be technical, its is a possessive pronoun, like my or his. Eg:

The cat licked its fur. [The cat has / possesses fur, so the fur belongs to the cat.]

An ash tree sheds its leaves every autumn. [The leaves belong to the tree.]

The mysterious box had held its secrets for centuries. [The secrets belonged to the box.]

The confusion is understandable – possession or belonging is often indicated by using ‘apostrophe S’. But not in this case.

There are some common phrases that have extra power to confuse, particularly on its way and on its own, where it isn’t clear what belongs to what. We have to stretch the imagination a bit to work out what’s actually going on. For example:

Your parcel is on its way. [Your parcel has a journey to make, so the journey (way) belongs to the parcel.]

However, remember – if in doubt, say the sentence aloud, trying it is or it has. Here, it can’t mean either of those. So the spelling must be its, with no apostrophe.


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