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I am exploring possible differences in the meanings of 'implicate/incriminate' from using different direct objects. Assume the context is police interrogation:

  1. He implicated/incriminated his friends.

  2. He implicated/incriminated himself.

Could (1) mean it was done voluntarily, but (2) that it was done unknowingly, probably because of trick questions by the police?

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When you are not sure, do not guess. Look up a dictionary. If not convinced or find any difficulty, you may try asking on ell.stackexchange.com – Kris May 30 '13 at 6:34
@Kris I already checked a dictionary, but it was no good. – effing May 30 '13 at 6:38
It would have been useful to indicate which dictionary/ies you have checked to avoid others repeating that on your behalf. – TrevorD May 30 '13 at 10:33

Just answering the final question (at the end of your question):

  1. He implicated/incriminated his friends.
    This could be voluntarily, unknowingly, intentionally, with or without malice, under pressure of interrogation, or in any other way. There is no 'implication' in the word as to how or why the implication or incrimination took place.
    If you wanted to indicate intention or method, you could, for example, say:
    He incriminated his friends unintentionally.
  2. He implicated/incriminated himself.
    Again, there is no implication of how or why he took the action described. He may have voluntarily confessed once he knew the police suspected him - which would, of course, be done knowingly and without trick questions. He may have unintentionally left incriminating evidence (e.g. fingerprints) at the crime scene. He may have unwittingly said something incriminating while being questioned by the police. He may have unwittingly have said something suspicious - but not fully incriminating - while being questioned.
    Again, if you want to indicate intention or method, expand the sentence, e.g.:
    He implicated himself while being questioned by admitting that he was with his friends [who they already knew/thought had done the crime] immediately after the crime took place.
    He had incriminated himself by carelessly leaving fingerprints at the crime scene.
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The answer to your questions is not "either/or" but "both/and." Take the following sentence (please!):

The incriminating evidence--the bloody knife with his fingerprints on it--implicated him in the stabbing.

Think of "to incriminate" metaphorically. In keeping with the etymology of the word (which means basically to accuse), someone or something accuses you of being somehow guilty. It screams out incriminatingly, "This bloody knife with your fingerprints on it proves you committed the crime!"

Think of "to implicate" metaphorically. Someone or something indicates you are involved in something shady. The word involved, in keeping with its etymology, means there is an interweaving of people and actions. By implication, this someone or something proves your involvement. It screams out, "This bloody knife with your fingerprints on it proves you were involved in this crime somehow." Involvement in a crime does not necessarily incriminate someone of having committed the crime, however. Perhaps the person whose fingerprints are on the weapon was an innocent bystander who pulled the knife out of the victim's body!

How, then, do we answer your questions? Well, a few scenarios could append to the three persons in your two exemplars:

Person A, the interrogatee, both voluntarily and unknowingly implicates his friends, B and C.

A piece of incriminating evidence, for example, slips out of his mouth (either accidentally or as a result of a skillful interrogation), thus implicating his friends.


Person A involuntarily--and thus unknowingly--spilled the beans, implicating his friends.

The implication is that the skillful interrogator, by simply keeping Person A talking, gets him to say something he would later regret. A Freudian might suggest person A voluntarily implicated his friends because he didn't want to bear the full weight of the crime, but either way, whether consciously or unconsciously, he involuntarily uttered the incriminating (i.e., accusatory) information. How much of a role coercion played in his utterance is unclear.

Can an utterance be both involuntary and conscious? Yes. If the coercion exerted on Person A is both unrelenting and skillful, he can be "broken down" and thus consciously, albeit against his will, implicate his friends. The utterance can even be untrue!

Police have been know to do a number of things that, while perfectly legal, make defense attorneys very nervous. The police are allowed to lie in an interrogation, for example. With friends A and B in a room that is separate from person A, the police could say to person A, "Your friends have already implicated you [the truth is, they have not], so you may as well tell us what really happened." So he does.

What might initially have been his conscious resolve not to implicate his friends turns into a deliberate effort to incriminate them, so that they all share the blame. Person A then says, "Ok, I did the crime, but person B drove the getaway car, and person C held the victim so that I could stab him." In this instance,

Person A voluntarily and knowingly implicated his friends in the crime.

Would his utterances have been as "voluntary" and "knowing" had he known the cops were lying to him? Probably not, but then sometimes in police work, the ends (i.e., the confession) justifies the means (i.e., lying).

In conclusion, the words implicate and incriminate do overlap somewhat; however, incriminate is the "stronger" word, carrying as it does the notion of accusation, whereas implicate is a word that indicates, by implication, involvement.

Lawyers distinguish between evidence that is exculpatory and evidence that is inculpatory, with the former indicating or proving innocence, and the latter, guilt. Similarly, incriminating evidence is at least potentially inculpatory. On the continuum of guilt and innocence, implicating evidence is definitely there, but just not as far along the continuum on the guilty side as is incriminating evidence.

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Both implication and incrimination can be fully performed voluntarily and knowingly. Neither are dependent on the other.

In general I would suggest that there is a difference between the two. In general, I would suggest that implication can lead to incrimination, but incrimination can be reached without implication. Implication is suggestive of incrimination, but it is not necessarily the evidence of a crime nor is it necessarily a pre-requisite of incrimination.

In any case a general appreciation for the distinction in any domain but the one that matters is futile. In other words, consult a lawyer if it is a legal concern about the distinction.

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Sorry! My question is actually about himself vs his friends. – effing May 30 '13 at 7:50
Can you voluntarily implicate and incriminate your friends, while unknowingly implicating and incriminating yourself? Yes, you can with trick questions or not. What I see as a trick question isn't necessarily what you see as a trick question, and vice versa. But, see number three. Ask a lawyer. – JustinC May 30 '13 at 8:35

The difference here is subtle. I suggest that incriminate necessarily incorporates giving reliable evidence, something that actually implies guilt.

Jimmy hid the stolen money in his basement and it is still there.

In contrast, implicate doesn’t entail any more than the speaker’s say-so.

Me and Jimmy robbed a bank.

Well, maybe, or maybe you just want to spread the blame. With respect to the speaker himself, the difference between admission and confession as legal terms may be relevant.

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You say "incriminate necessarily incorporates giving reliable evidence". I would understand giving evidence as meaning in a court of law. The rest of your answer suggests that possibly you mean leaving clear evidence (for the police to find). – TrevorD May 30 '13 at 10:39
I'd say the difference is glaring rather. – Kris May 30 '13 at 11:37

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