Let’s say you’re going to suppose something about an individual, group, or situation. Are you going to “presume” something? Or are you going to “assume” something? Presume vs. assume? That depends on the level of proof you have ahead of time. Don’t believe us? We’ll prove it.
So close. And yet…
One reason people mix up “presume” and “assume” is because they’re very closely related. They both share a Latin root, sumere, which means “to put on” or “take up.”
But though relatives might share hair color and the ability to wiggle their ears, they’re not carbon copies of each other. The difference is in the level of proof the writer has—or the level of probability.
To “presume” is to have some evidence ahead of time. Let’s say you’re writing an essay for college students. You can presume they’ve had some high school courses (whether public, private, or homeschool). The balance of probability is that college students have been to some sort of high school—thus, you’re presuming.
To “assume,” though, means having no evidence whatsoever. Let’s go back to that essay you’re writing for college students. You can’t assume that all of them only speak one language, for example. You have no proof of this, and the probability that all the college students you’re addressing in your essay can only speak one language is pretty low. Behold! You’re making an assumption.
The easiest way, then, to figure out when to use presume vs. assume is in the proof that you have ahead of time.
Presume vs. assume: the odd couple
Another way to settle the presume vs. assume question is with a catchphrase popularized by screenwriter Jerry Belson.
Belson wrote the episode “My Strife in Court” for the sitcom The Odd Couple. In it, he has Felix Unger say, “You should never assume. Because when you do, you make an ass out of you and me.”
Get it? “Assume” = “ass” + “u” + “me.”
What’s an easy way to be deemed an ass? By deciding something is true without any evidence.
Go back to that essay you’re writing for college students. Would some of them be hurt or annoyed at your theory that undergraduates can speak only one language? Quite possibly.
On the other hand, would any of them be peeved that you theorized that they had some high school courses and wrote accordingly? Eh, probably not.
So when deciding between presume vs. assume, keep in mind—which is likely to make Felix Unger yell at you?
Congratulations! You now know that the main criterion in choosing between presume vs. assume is the amount of proof you have ahead of time.
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