Enforcing or effacing useful distinctions?

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This paper examines the development of <i>infer </i>and <i>imply</i> from their first uses in the fifteenth century to the present, using the EEBO and COHA corpora. Both words have more complex histories than the prescriptive rule regulating them would suggest, and their development illustrates the movement towards subjective and intersubjective meanings often seen in semantic change. Both words began with an &#8216;impersonal entail&#8217; sense, which developed into a &#8216;personal suggest&#8217; sense for <i>imply</i>, and possibly for some instances of <i>infer</i>. Two other paths to the proscribed &#8216;suggest&#8217; sense of <i>infer</i> become noticeable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First, the &#8216;deduce&#8217; sense of <i>infer</i> started to be used in contexts in which someone both presumably made an inference and reported that inference. Second, <i>infer</i> began to be used to soften possibly face-threatening statements. The rise of the prescriptive rule, however, likely effaced, rather than encouraged, this nascent distinction.


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