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Is there some way to tell that a distinction is doomed to disappear? When did the difference between presently and currently disappear? Presently and momentarily? The distinction between imply and infer seems to be hanging on, but will spell-check inevitably kill the difference between principal and principle? The question is not whether the disappearance of distinctions is good or bad, but when the tipping point -- or tipping range -- occurs.

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  • To predict when some distinction is 'doomed'? Use science instead of anecdotes. Use corpora to count instances, and use statistics to see if a noticed trend is real or not.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 1:37
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    I've never heard imply and infer conflated. Let it also be said that the meaning of presently hasn't changed to be synonymous with currently. It at first meant currently but evolved to mean shortly; over time, however, people began to think that this was nonsensical, and so they changed the meaning back to what it logically should be: the adverb of present.
    – Anonym
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 1:52
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because we can't predict how English will evolve.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:57
  • Infer and imply are two totally different concepts. The fact that some users confuse between them isn't a reason to "lose distinction"
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:59

1 Answer 1

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Garner's Modern American Usage has a useful feature called the Language-Change Index (page xxxv), whose purpose "is to measure how widely-accepted various linguistic innovations have become".

The Language-Change Index has 5 stages, as outlined in this Language Log entry by Mark Liberman. Garner's key to the 5 stages includes 10 amusing, if idiosyncatic, analogies. So the Olfactory Analogy lists the 5 stages as follows:

  • Stage 1: Foul
  • Stage 2: Malodorous
  • Stage 3: Smelly
  • Stage 4: Vaguely odorous
  • Stage 5: Neutral

And the Etiquette Analogy has:

  • Stage 1: Audible farting
  • Stage 2: Audible belching
  • Stage 3: Overloud talking
  • Stage 4: Elbows on the table
  • Stage 5: Refined

Garner includes a lengthy discussion of how he decides on the stage that any given usage has reached in his prefatory chapter The Ongoing Struggles of Garlic-Hangers.

As to the confusion of infer/imply, Garner says (page 464):

Writers frequently misuse infer when imply would be the correct word. ... Don't be swayed by apologetic notes in some dictionaries that sanction the use of infer as a substitute for imply, Stylists agree that the important distinction between these words deserves to be maintained.

Garner rates the use of infer to mean imply at stage 3 of the language change index.

He rates presently for now or currently at stage 4. And principle for principal at stage 2.

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