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Assume v. Presume

Black Hole

May contain traces of nut
#1
I've been having a long-running discussion with my sub-editor regarding observations of the word 'assume' (or derivatives), where (classically) the word 'presume' should be preferred.

What's the difference? Ignoring complication: 'assume' is something you take upon yourself (assume a role or a position), and 'presume' is to make a guess prior to confirming data ("Dr Livingstone I presume"). How to tell when 'presume' would be appropriate rather than 'assume'? If you can rearrange the sentence to begin 'Presumably' (since there is no word 'Assumably'), don't use 'assume'.

However, it has been noted that 'assume' occurs very often where 'presume' would be indicated by the above rule, in common modern usage, across all media. The reason for this slippage is that every use of 'assume' instead of 'presume' reinforces itself in the general subconcious, until it becomes the norm.

So when did this slippage begin? I was reading something this morning which shook me:

"...and the mathematical investigations given in special articles marked with an asterisk (*). This plan has been followed throughout the book, so the general reader can evade all the mathematical investigations, but it must not be assumed that articles so marked are difficult to understand..."
Foreword to the Admiralty Manual of Tides, 1941 (my underlining)

Assume/Presume thus joins my catalogue in the same category as Curious/Inquisitive.
 

fenlander

Active Member
#2
From Clark and Pointon ("Words: a Guide"):

assume verb, means to suppose without evidence [..]. In another sense, assume means to take over resonsibility [..].

presume verb, means to draw a conclusion from some evidence [..]. In another sense, presume means to behave without showing respect [..].

(Examples omitted)

Slightly, but significantly, different from your definitions.
 
OP
OP
Black Hole

Black Hole

May contain traces of nut
#3
That's interesting. Not so different, actually, if I cherry-pick the latter version of 'assume' and the former version of 'presume' (although one might debate exactly what "some" means). Taking both former versions, one would have to draw a line exactly how little evidence is required before a presumption becomes an assumption, and the arbitrary nature of the distinction means I would be disinclined to use 'assume' in that sense (when, exactly, does a hill become a mountain - ignoring the rigorous dividing line imposed on the language of geography specialists).

Playing devil's advocate, the understanding of a word's meaning transmutes over time... I wonder when the Clark & Pointon's definitions originate (and are they not Canadian?).

Of course, my observations are based on my liking for rules of thumb, and rules are there to be broken (or, at least, get broken whether one likes it or not). Certain persons of a generation older than mine had rules imposed during their education - me less so having been educated in the free-and-easy 60's & 70's (when it was regarded as more important to express oneself than to express oneself correctly) but acquiring an interest since. The only quarrel I have with imposed rules being their originators presumption (or should that be assumption) that they knew best.
 

fenlander

Active Member
#4
Playing devil's advocate, the understanding of a word's meaning transmutes over time... I wonder when the Clark & Pointon's definitions originate.
First edition published 2009.

Of course usage alters with time. Linguistically, some people innovate with varying degrees of discrimination and taste: others resist innovation. That's how our institutions work.
 
OP
OP
Black Hole

Black Hole

May contain traces of nut
#5
I agree, but I will point out that because of my background in technical documentation I do lean towards a more precise usage than would be common. I suppose you might call that resisting innovation, but for purposes of clarity.
 

fenlander

Active Member
#6
I suspect that the distinction between 'assume' and 'presume' is irrelevant to most people. What practical difference there is can be derived from the context. As a result, the precise meanings are being lost to the language. Personally, I regret any loss of precision in language because the richness of our vocabulary is one of the distinguishing features of English (there's an obvious reason why the OED runs to 20 volumes while Littré (French) runs to only 4). Still, as technical authors (yeah, me too...) we know that we have to define our terms: the glossary is our friend.
 
OP
OP
Black Hole

Black Hole

May contain traces of nut
#7
I have mused that dictionaries of synonyms are oxymoronic - when the true subtleties of a word's meaning are taken into account, there are no synonyms!

I shall start expanding the glossary forthwith...
 

af123

Administrator
Staff member
#8
Interesting discussion, thanks. I too tend towards the pedantic with my written language ('phone anyone?). Now if we can just get people to sort out less/fewer!
 
OP
OP
Black Hole

Black Hole

May contain traces of nut
#9
Here's a thought (not looked into it): less is to more as fewer is to what?

I'll keep my answer under my hat for the moment.
 
OP
OP
Black Hole

Black Hole

May contain traces of nut
#14
Which smilie should I have used for "tongue in cheek"? The reason I don't use them much is their considerable sparseness compared with certain other forums I could mention - no doubt they would clarify my intention if I did pepper a few in. Why is the BigGrin face green? It makes me think of jealousy even though that is not the intended meaning. :thumbsup:
 

fenlander

Active Member
#15
Hey, we started with assume and presume and now we're getting into the semantics of smilie faces? This conversation is fast approaching the 'get a life' category.:)
 

Luke

Well-Knwοn Мember
#18
Now if we can just get people to sort out less/fewer!
Quoting A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler (1926; Oxford at the Clarendon Press; London: Humphrey Milford)

The modern tendency is so to restrict less that it means not smaller, but a smaller amount of, is the comparative rather of a little than of little, & is consequently applied only to things that are measured by amount & not by size or quality or number, nouns with which much & little, not great & small, nor high & low, nor many & few are the appropriate contrasted epithets : less butter, courage ; but a smaller army, table ; a lower price, degree ; fewer opportunities, people.
Plurals, & singulars with a or an, will naturally not take less ; less tonnage, but fewer ships ; less manpower, but fewer men ; less opportunity, but a worse opportunity, & inferior opportunities ; though a few plurals like clothes & troops, really equivalent to singulars of indefinite amount, are exceptions : could do with less troops or clothes.
 

fenlander

Active Member
#19
Back to Clark & Pointon:

fewer determiner & pronoun, is the comparitive form of few and is used with plural nouns: Fewer children are in two-parent families today than 50 years ago.
less adjective, is the comparitive form of little and is used with uncountable nouns, such as information and damage: The government has ensured that less information is available.
 

Luke

Well-Knwοn Мember
#20
I've been having a long-running discussion with my sub-editor regarding observations of the word 'assume' (or derivatives), where (classically) the word 'presume' should be preferred.
...
So when did this slippage begin?
As fowler had something to say about this topic in 1926 it was at least 15 years earlier than 1941.
 
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