When Do You Presume and Not Merely Assume?
by Owen Fourie
To take. That’s what the Latin sũmere means. In English, it becomes sume in words like consume, resume, assume, and presume.
Many people like sume. Marketers like it in consume. People who don’t like intrusive advertising like it in resume—not to be confused with the differently pronounced word for the document you use when you apply for a job.
Others who have to choose between assume and presume would be happier to believe that these two words are synonyms. But it’s not as easy as that.
Are assume and presume synonyms?
Fowler indicates that assume and presume are “roughly synonymous” when they are used to mean suppose.
In this sense, Fowler explains that
- the object clause after assume expresses the speaker’s supposition or hypothesis [taking something for granted without proof];
- the object clause after presume expresses what the speaker really believes to be true until it is disproved.
A distinction is also made in the form of the object clause after each of these words:
- The object clause after assume is headed by that: I assume that you know how to build an igloo;
- The object clause after presume omits that: I presume you know how to build an igloo.
[Fowler, H. W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. London: Oxford UP, 1957. Print.]
This distinction—assume that you; presume you—is not necessarily observed today, and that is readily omitted after assume.
Are assume and presume interchangeable?
Apart from this “roughly synonymous” usage of these two words in the sense of suppose, they are not interchangeable. Look at the following sentences to see this.
In each of these examples, assume or assumed should be used instead of presume or presumed.
- On the death of the CEO, the Chairman of the Board assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer.
- It is expected that the rebels will assume control of the capital.
- Although he was not sorry, the boy assumed an air of remorse.
- Breaking all ties with her past, she lived under an assumed name. [Here, assumed is used as an adjective.]
In each of these examples, presume or presumed should be used instead of assume or assumed.
- Do not presume to tell them what to do in their own establishment.
- They have been very kind, but you should not presume on their generosity.
- Being related to the president of the company does not give you the right to presume that you will get the job.
- It is a tenet of the legal system that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Use presume instead of assume in situations in which someone is
- taking liberty without justification;
- taking too much for granted;
- taking undue advantage;
- acting arrogantly.
Should I assume or presume that you now know how to use these words?
If there are other words like assume and presume that you find confusing, mention them here. Let’s find a way to resolve the problem. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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