Is There a Difference Between “Assume” and “Presume”?

By Maeve Maddox

Both words have numerous definitions in the OED, but in ordinary usage, both assume and presume mean “suppose.”

I suppose you are going to the beach this summer.
I assume you are going to the beach this summer
I presume you are going to the beach this summer.

H.W. Fowler’s opinion was that in using presume, the speaker believes the supposition is true and will believe it until he learns otherwise. In using assume, the speaker feels no certainty that his supposition is true or not.

In a legal context, presume means “to take as proved until contrary evidence is presented.” Ex. The defendant is presumed innocent.

Because of the association of the word presume with legal contexts, it carries a connotation of formality. For the fiction writer, presume would be the preferable choice in the speech of a remote or officious character.

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19 Responses to “Is There a Difference Between “Assume” and “Presume”?”

  • Brad K.

    Presume has alway seemed to imply a future context, often more a question than a statement. Sort of a guess, looking for confirmation.
    “I presume you will wish dinner served in the dining room?”

    Assume seems more a statement of the present, based on observations and facts already evident. An assumption would be a hypothesis, something stronger than a “good guess”.

    Thanks!

  • Trina L. Grant | Professional Freelance Writer

    “Assume” can also be used to mean that something has, for instance, taken on different characteristics, right? As in, say, “She assumed a better attitude after our talk.” Is that correct? That may be completely incorrect usage of that word, though. If I’m wrong, blame it on the South, lol.

  • Brad K.

    Trina L. Grant,

    I believe that is a different meaning. “She deliberately left her cheery nature behind her as she entered the room, to assume the role of mediator.” “John’s task was to assume responsibility for the financial losses of the firm, and correct the problems.”

    The assume/presume question is about nuances of making provisional decisions (I will decide *this*, provided conditions remain as they are).

    The meaning for the word you are thinking of is not related to the story about “ass/u/me” making an “a** of you and me”.

  • Maeve

    Trina,
    Another meaning of “assume” is “put on”:

    Sherlock Holmes assumed a disguise in order to spy on the suspect.

    As for “blaming it on the South,” we should never feel the need to apologize for our Southern idiom. It’s as valid as that of any other region and preserves fascinating fossils of an earlier English.

    My philosophy is–we should all be willing and able to modify our speech to be understood by people from different speech communities, but we should never have to apologize for our native dialect.

  • Brad K.

    Maeve,

    Yes.

    Maybe 40 years ago I saw an Ann Landers column. A lady wrote about her husband, that she didn’t understand what he was talking about because he was an engineer.

    Ms. Landers replied that if the guy was that smart – he should be smart enough to figure out how to be understood.

    That still makes sense to me.

  • Nils

    Consider which is more humourous:

    Dr Livingston, I presume?
    Dr Livingston, I assume?

    I’d say the first option, which is how Stanley supposedly phrased it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Livingstone

  • anony

    Well suppose is lyk a question… you know.. the outcome of that question is lyk entirely optional.. nothing certain.

    erm… assume is kind of like saying what you think will happen E.g

    guy 1: Omg… those sweets were soo nice!
    guy 2: so i ASSUME you’re going to get some more…. you know what i mean?

    And finally presume is for something quite a long way in the future
    guy 1: I want to become a stock broker
    guy 2: I presume you’re going to take a degree in business.

    source: A 14 and 1 month year old… that sounded wrong…..
    kid from england =] stunned all of ya right!

  • Brad K.

    anony, the first guy 1 and guy 2 example is not proper use, nor correct use of assume. Note that using all capital letters is the common way to emphasize a word .. on a typewriter. Since I saw it on my browser, the correct way to emphasize a word varies. Some use quotation marks, hyphens, or asterisks to set off the important word. Others craft a well-written sentence to make their point.

    Guy 2, in your first example, insinuates in a deceptive or manipulative, almost bullying, manner. Guy 2 could have said politely, “So, will you be getting more? I would like a taste, too.” Instead he “assumes” that he deserves, or is sufficiently intimidating, to get a portion of the sweets that guy 1 just enjoyed. There is nothing about polite speech here – this sounds more like gangsters or common thugs leaning on those they prey on.

    In your second example, I would have used assume. The assumption guy 2 makes is right now – guy 2 has already assumed, in order to make this statement, that in order to become a broker, guy 1 must begin preparing. Assume has nothing to do, in this statement, with guy 1, with guy 1’s career goals, or with anyone preparing or taking classes or earning degrees.

    I use presume when I expect additional information in the future, relating to a choice or decision.

  • Gab

    Brad, politeness isn’t the only purpose of speech!

    In choosing how to say something, you need to decide what’s most appropriate for the context. If you want to be cheeky and provocative, or even threatening, you’ll choose a different way of expressing your thoughts from the way you might have chosen in a more formal context. That doesn’t mean that the informal version is ungrammatical or ‘wrong’ – it can actually be the most appropriate version to choose in the context.

    Think of that scene in “My Fair Lady”, where Eliza keeps saying “HOW do you do?” to each of the new people she meets, which seems so funny to Freddie that he replies with “How DO you do?” The way she’d been taught to say it ignored its contemporary usage as a greeting rather than a question, so her intonation ended up sounding odd to other speakers.

    Poor thing – wasn’t her fault at all!

    Btw, clearly I have no problem with using capitals to emphasise something (especially something already within inverted commas), when bolding, underlining and italics aren’t available, just like on a typewriter. What’s the big issue with that? 🙂

  • Lauren

    to assume is to take on – such as a responsibility.
    to presume is to make an educated guess.

  • David

    Whilst the words are generally interchangeable when the meaning “is suppose” to be the case eg. “I assume/presume you are coming to the party”

    The subtlety is in the extent of prior knowlege be the person asking.

    Assume is used when there is no proof (or knowlege) that something is the case.
    “I assume you are coming to the party” The person asking has no knowlege of what the case would be and is not relying on any other known condition.
    For example: The person asking does not know anything else that would lead them to believe the person was coming to the party.
    “I assume you are coming to the party, because I expect you would be” (dominant tone)

    “I presume you are coming to the party”
    Presume is used when the person is relying upon a faint suggestion of presumptuousness or some arguable element they believe exists.
    For example: the person asking knows or believes they know some other information that would tend to suggest the person was coming to the party.
    “I presume you are coming to the party, because you always have in the past” (passive tone)

  • Emma

    My dictionary agrees with David.

    Also, I agree with Gab on the issue of using capital letters to emphasize a word. I prefer italics when possible, but in cases where it’s not, I use capitals.

  • Chandrashekara

    In scientific literature, more precisely in developmental biology, it is common to find statements like …” after the second division the daughter cells assume spherical shape”

  • Cliff Douglas

    Presume has an important use in the sense of “to go beyond what is proper, to undertake without permission or to dare”. Ex. I would not presume to come into your house and tell your children what to do.

  • Trevor Roberts

    Everyone should have a look at the derivation of the words, rather than inventing new meanings for them. Assume means to take up (as in adopt) where as presume means to take in advance and means to anticipate.

    I take it [up] that you intend to arrest me. I assume that you intend to arrest me.

    I take it ahead of it happening [anticipate] that you intend to arrest me. I presume that you intend to arrest me.

    All other meanings should flow from the base meaning and should not deviate [too far] from the original sense.

    It’s no wonder that English is so complex and confusing – we are always trying to change or expand meanings of words. As a writer, especially one who would like to think that his words will still be read with the same meaning in 500 years, I am an advocate of leaving well enough alone when it comes to language. By all means invent new words, but leave the original ones as they were.

  • Simon Shiffor

    Thank you Trevor Roberts for the most concise answer. As an old timer, it is sad to see the dumbing-down-of-America becoming a reality.
    As I read through many forums such as this, seeing the English language and its proper grammar being neglected is a sure sign of the deterioration of our civilization. While learning English in elementary school, we were taught the root of the word. That way, there was less chance of presuming what the word meant.
    One thought missing is the use of assume to literally take a position. For example, before getting a “swat” for misbehaving (such punishment is a crime today) we were told to “assume the position” meaning to grab your ankles.

  • Joseph Lassonde

    I agree with Trevor. As a lawyer, we think of it like this: when forging a contract, there is a presumption of risk [meaning we anticipate risk]; we then allocate that risk to each party, leaving each party with an assumption of risk [meaning each party takes on or adopts the risk]. Hope this helps a little bit in understanding the subtle, yet important nuance involved between the two words.

  • George

    I’ve always used ASSUME to represent present tense, and PRESUME to discuss something that will occur in the future. In the example of Guy 1 saying “I want to become a stockbroker”, Guy 2’s response could be, “I assume you are taking a business degree” to someone who’s known to be currently attending school, or “I presume you will be taking a business degree” to a high school student talking about their future. Perhaps its the “PRE” that implies some sort of future action.
    Further, ASSUME does mean to put on, or take on, such as ASSUME a disguise, or a position, or an attitude, or, in this case, an opinion. Where PRESUME, for me, implies more of a guess.

  • Carrie

    In a deposition, a question is rattled off to you, and because of the definition of “presume” vs. “assume”, one might find themselves not knowing how to answer the question.

    For example, the lawyer asks the question, “if you respond to a question, then we can presume that you understand the question?”

    How can one either assume, or presume, that a question asked will be fully understood when asked, and giving your response?

    It’s a death trap in my opinion, when answers are documented for the record. It’s not un till after you read the transcript of the deposition taken, where you can see where you might not have understood the question asked, yet submitted an incorrect responce to, but you testified from the beginning, that we could ” presume” that when answering a question, the question was understood, if a responce was given.

    Now that I am not in “pop quiz” position, and can read what was being asked, i can now see where i didnt fully understand the question being asked, and my responce to the question is quite different then what was documented for the record.

    With all of the above said, I don’t believe I said ” yes” or ” no” to this “presuming” business of understanding questions being asked if a responce was given. When I paused to think about what was being asked, my lawyer told me I had to say ” yes”. My responce was ” yes, I was just thinking about the question….”

    So, did I say ” yes”, you can “presume” I understand the question asked if I give a responce, or was I saying ” yes” I understand I need to give an answer?

    Thoughts and feed back would be excellent. My time is up, and I thank you for yours.

    -Carrie

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