Don’t Assume Too Much

I’m sure you know what happens when you assume too much. But if you understand the distinction between assume and presume, you can avoid the resulting embarrassment.

Both assume and presume mean to believe something is true or will happen before it does. The distinction between these two words is in the degree of certainty. To assume something is to have only an instinct or gut feeling, not necessarily any fact or proof on which to base your assumption.

When I find a new scratch on my ninety-year-old neighbor’s vehicle, I might assume someone sideswiped him. Or he got a little too close to a wall.

Knowing my neighbor’s reputation for close scrapes, I’m probably correct in presuming this latest scratch is the result of a similar incident. Though I still have no proof until his daughter confirms it.

Presume carries more probability that what you’re supposing will actually happen. It’s similar to taking something for granted. If a political candidate has no opposition in a primary campaign, it’s safe to say he or she is the party’s presumptive nominee. If one football team has a twenty-point lead with three minutes to go in a game, you could tune out the game and presume a winner.

Both assume and presume can also mean “to take on oneself.”

  • When Jenny came down with the flu a week before the big event, Sally assumed the role of chairwoman.

In the following sentence, presumed applies more to attitude than action.

  • If John expects me to bail him out of his financial difficulty, he’s presuming too much of my friendship and generosity.

The difference between assume and presume can be subtle, so I’ll take care not to assume I know which to use in every instance.

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  1. I guess another distinction is that a person can be called presumptuous while I have never heard the term assumptuous.

  2. This is a great article. What a subtle difference between “assume” and “presume.” You’ve explained it well.

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