Apparently and Presumably

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader has asked for a discussion of the difference between the words apparently and presumably.

A meaning for presumably is easy to pin down.

The OED gives one current definition:

presumably: Qualifying a statement as likely but not known for certain: as one may presume or reasonably suppose; in all probability.

Merriam-Webster’s definition is more succinct:

presumably: by reasonable assumption

A statement that includes presumably states a conclusion someone has reached based on previous information or personal experience. There is still a chance that the conclusion is incorrect. Consider the following examples from the fraze.it site.

Thieves used a blowtorch to cut it apart, presumably to sell it for scrap metal.

Reasonable Assumption: Why else would anyone cut a metal device apart, ruining its function? Surely, they planned to sell the scraps.

Possible alternative: The thieves were vandals or grudge-bearers who just wanted to distress the owner.

However, he doesn’t want to alienate the remaining, presumably loyal, employees.

Reasonable assumption: The remaining employees have stayed on out of loyalty.

Possible alternative: The remaining employees were hanging on not out of loyalty, but because they couldn’t afford to quit.

Some of these Hmong have since fled from the village, presumably for the border.

Reasonable assumption: People fearing injury from their own government would want to get out of the country, especially if the border is nearby.

Possible alternatives: The people may be too old to travel or they prefer to stay in the country and hide.

Unlike presumably, apparently has shifting meanings.

First meaning of apparently
The adjective apparent is defined in the OED as “manifest to the understanding; evident, plain clear, obvious; palpable.”

Derived from this definition, apparently can mean “clearly, plainly evident.”

The dog was apparently killed by a car.
Evidence: The dog was found lying in the street and it’s dead.

Two women, apparently tourists, were walking on railroad tracks, a witness said.
Evidence: clothing, accessories, behavior.

Firefighters found him near a door where he apparently was attempting to escape.
Evidence: the body was found by the door, inside a burned building.

Second meaning of apparently
Because appearances can be deceiving, apparently has another meaning: “seemingly, but not really.”

As Shakespeare puts it in Measure for Measure,

O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!

In public they were apparently the perfect couple, but at home they fought constantly.

Apparently as a rhetorical ploy
I suspect that politicians and TV pundits may use apparently as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. The most outrageous assertion—modified by apparently—is grounds for plausible deniability.In the interest of reader equanimity, I won’t give any specific examples.

Apparently as a filler word
Every writer has tics. For example, one of mine is the word just. I sometimes do a final search and find to delete all my unnecessary uses of just.

Sometimes, apparently seems to be thrown into a sentence unnecessarily, as a “no job word” that adds nothing but some extra syllables. For example, this sentence from the fraze.it site:

Apparently the Mint floor cleaner is available for $249 and is now on pre-order.

Granted, the sentence is taken out of context, but as it stands, the adverb is superfluous. The writer knows the price of the cleaner and the fact that it is available for pre-order. Its availability is plain without having to say so.

In some contexts, an argument can be made that apparently and presumably can be used interchangeably. Indeed, Merriam-Webster lists presumably as a synonym for apparently and apparently as a synonym for presumably.

Deciding which to use is a stylistic choice. My only advice in the matter is to beware of overusing apparently.

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3 Responses to “Apparently and Presumably”

  • ApK

    Seems like “apparently” is one one Maeve’s peeves! I admit to using it a lot myself, and I have always used it to mean “it appears.” That is, it may be so, it may not be so, but it looks that way. I rarely use it or hear it used in the first sense, i.e. “It’s plainly apparent.”
    While it can certainly be a weasel word, like “allegedly,” it is also, an honest way to communicate that “I have not done thorough analysis of the matter to confidently assert this as fact, but it does look that way.” I like it. Good word.
    ‘Presumably’ may have a similar meaning, but presuming something sometimes has a negative connotation, as if you are assuming and prejudging, not judging on what what’s really before you.

  • Maeve

    ApK,
    I do try to avoid it in writing, but have to admit that it pops up frequently in daily speech.

  • Maeve

    ApK,
    Since writing this article, I find myself using “apparently” more than I ever knew I did. And not wanting to replace it in my writing. I agree. It’s a good word!

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