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?
- I’ve misread or misunderstood the sentence, and this usage is standard.
- 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).
- This usage is nonstandard and is an error.
- None of the above.
(Please feel free to retag — I’m not sure what’s appropriate here.)
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.