BizWritingTip reader: “Can you tell me the real difference between assume and presume? I know presume has a more negative connotation, but the dictionary definitions for them are so similar. The wordassume has been given such a bad rap over the years with the bad joke about what assuming does. What is the correct usage of these words?”
According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, assume means “to take or accept as being true, without proof, for the purpose of argument or action.” Presume means “to suppose to be true.”
Although they are not quite the same and neither is listed as a synonym for the other, they are used interchangeably now.
You are right about the bad rap assume has gotten because of the comment: “assuming makes an ass out of ‘u’ and me.” Like many things, this statement has been misunderstood.
The comment relates to the thinking process — not the writing or speaking process. In other words, you should not assume things when thinking or planning. You should check details and ask questions.
You can, therefore, use the word assume when speaking or writing because you are, in fact, checking. The person you are writing or speaking to is supposed to set you straight if your assumption is wrong.
Correct Examples (when writing or speaking)
I assume he will be at the meeting. (You expect the reader/listener to inform you if your assumption is wrong.)
I presume he will be at the meeting.
If the person is important to your meeting, you should never “assume” he will be there. You should check by writing or speaking.
Knowing my BizWritingTip readers, I assume they will let me know if they do not agree with this advice.