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I was taken aback to discover the following in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! on page 157 of my (Vintage International) edition:

the magnolia-faced woman a little plumper now, a woman created of by and for darkness whom the artist Beardsley might have dressed, in a soft flowing gown designed not to infer bereavement or widowhood but to dress some interlude of slumbrous and fatal insatiation, of passionate and inexorable hunger of the flesh

(The whole sentence is, predictably, fairly long, so I've only included part of it.)

My question is about the use of the word "infer," which I've bolded above. As far as I can tell, this is an example of the classic "infer"/"imply" confusion, but I'm surprised to see it here.

So, which of the following do you reckon is correct?

  1. I've misread or misunderstood the sentence, and this usage is standard.
  2. This usage is incorrect in standard written English but is a standard dialectal usage (in either Faulkner's own dialect or the dialect of the narrator/characters).
  3. This usage is nonstandard and is an error.
  4. None of the above.

(Please feel free to retag -- I'm not sure what's appropriate here.)

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Faulkner gave us a lot of nonstandard usages; for example, the dropped apostrophes in dont, wont, cant, aint and so on. –  Robusto Oct 26 '11 at 20:42
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@wfaulk: Are you getting all of this? –  Daniel Oct 26 '11 at 20:44
    
@Robusto 初夢: yes, but I think this situation is different from those examples which I would consider "trivially nonstandard"; even when Faulkner omits punctuation or writes in dialect, his word choice in Quentin's stream-of-consciousness passages is usually standard and very precise. –  Jon Oct 27 '11 at 3:16
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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The usage of infer meaning imply is actually quite venerable. Dictionary.com has some notes on the subject:

Usage note Infer has been used to mean “to hint or suggest” since the 16th century by speakers and writers of unquestioned ability and eminence: The next speaker criticized the proposal, inferring that it was made solely to embarrass the government. Despite its long history, many 20th-century usage guides condemn the use, maintaining that the proper word for the intended sense is imply and that to use infer is to lose a valuable distinction between the two words. Although the claimed distinction has probably existed chiefly in the pronouncements of usage guides, and although the use of infer to mean “to suggest” usually produces no ambiguity, the distinction too has a long history and is widely observed by many speakers and writers.

You have understood the example correctly in that infer means imply here, but the usage is not standard. I personally would rather stay mainstream and use imply, so as not to pick any fights, but I would also not go so far as to pronounce that usage of infer incorrect.

I would therefore pick option 4: You've understood the meaning correctly, the usage is nonstandard, but not an error, and it is somewhat distinguished, if only by time.

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So did the modern reluctance towards using "infer" in this sense come to prominence after Faulkner wrote AA? Because, despite my reluctance to align myself with prescriptivism in this case, I can't imagine a modern writer of Faulkner's eminence would use (or be allowed to use) infer in this way. –  Jon Oct 27 '11 at 3:14
    
Infer has certainly more than one meaning, but I don't believe imply is one of them, whatever dictionary.com believes. The quotation (wherever it is from) seems more the Shakespearean sense of 'adduce or allege' (marked as obsolete in OED). And surely there are enough terms for imply without dragooning infer into service? –  TimLymington Jun 22 '13 at 17:15
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Seems to me that the usage makes the action more passive-aggressive because the gown is designed to infer. It is psychological manipulation and sneakily so. It is designed to instill inference, not force notions through implication. To boldly imply something leaves one vulnerable to responsibility for overtly doing such. Twisting a finger in a cheek's dimple and coyly stating "did I do that?" The devil you know, and all that.

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Infer has a specific meaning in the pure and social sciences when discussing evidence. You infer something from the evidence using some reasoning method (often statistical).

There is a big difference between saying the evidence implies and it can be inferred from the evidence. The former is vague and merely suggestive. The latter indicates that a reasoning method has been used.

Although I have never read this passage or indeed any of Faulkner, I would go for 3 as the distinction is critically important in many disciplines.

I have been looking at this because I noticed infer being used incorrectly in another context.

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Please add your own evidence supporting this answer. Thanks. –  MετάEd Jun 22 '13 at 16:29
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