September 23, 2010
Weekly Language Usage Tips: cliches & assume /presume
An eagle-eyed reader sent along this sighting.
“LET US DO YOUR CATERING NEEDS”
You don’t need me to comment, do you?
A reader writes:
I was listening to some classical radio last evening, and a composer whose name escaped me, reportedly said this in response to one of his performances:
“He is a rich Pole, who plays Polo; I am a poor soul, who plays solo.”
Tip 1: To be honest, it’s a cliché.
A reader writes:
And, you have no doubt touched on this before, but I was a bit taken aback by your “to be honest,” below, as I’d assumed that you WERE being honest most of the time. Now that you’ve introduced this last sentence this way, must I question your truthfulness in all other instances?
Really? This is what you want me to comment on? Really?
Okay. I know the use of this phrase irks some people, and I am somewhat sympathetic to your pain. Your comment/question allows me to talk a little bit about clichés, and that’s not a bad thing.
According to Random House Dictionary, a cliché is “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as ‘sadder but wiser,’ or ‘strong as an ox.’”
The Urban Dictionary is a tad harsher, saying the a cliché is “something that is lame and unimaginative, and, more importantly, has been done many times before.”
Admittedly, ‘to be honest’ is a cliché. And so is ‘eagle-eyed’ used in Sighting 1. I would caution you not to use clichés in your formal writing. As noted above, in the definitions, they are overworked to the point that they have lost their impact and, perhaps, meaning. There is always another way to state something that is fresher or more imaginative.
That being said (cliché), I’m not going to condemn all use of all clichés. First, that would be hypocritical of me since I am as guilty as the next person (cliché) of using clichés in conversation and in conversational writing like this—I guess that makes it a colloquialism as well as a cliché. [NOTE: A colloquialism is a term or phrase that is used in informal contexts (e.g., what’s up?).] Second, I think that, sometimes, clichés can be used to impart a particular effect.
For example, when I wrote ‘to be honest’ in the sentence the reader cited, I was telling the readers that I was about to admit something to them. ‘To be honest’ is often used before an admission to inform the listener/reader that an admission is forthcoming.
Saying ‘to be honest’ does NOT imply that the speaker is dishonest or has been lying at all other times. That’s just silly. I don’t think anyone reading that sentence would suddenly think that my entire life until writing last week’s WLUT has been a fraud. However, I will admit (cliché) that the internet abounds with similar attitudes, and you can find many blogs indicating that using the phrase can be damaging and makes people suspect everything the speaker has said until then. For heaven’s sake (cliché)! Settle down (cliché) and get a grip (cliché).
Some rules for using clichés:
Don’t use them in formal writing.
Use them carefully and with intention.
Use them sparingly.
See if there is an alternative that is suitable for use.
Read H. W. Fowler’s entry on clichés which is long but lovely.
At the end of the day (cliché), remember that words are powerful, and what you say and how you say it matters, If your audience is going to offended by some usage, avoid it. Part of the beauty of English is that there are lots of ways to say everything.
Tip 2: Assume or presume
Is there a difference between ‘assume’ and ‘presume’? The answer to this is both yes and no. This answer shouldn’t come as a surprise as we know that English is a language of complexity and contradiction.
Both words mean presuppose and may be used interchangeably in that sense.
I presume that the manuscript will be completed and delivered on time.
I assume that the proposal will be funded during this cycle.
However, some find a subtle distinction between the two. What I find interesting is that the differences identified vary by source.
There is general consensus that ‘assume’ means presuppose in the absence of evidence. But some think that it indicates uncertainty as to the truth of the assumption. It can also mean ‘take up the role of’ or ‘take for granted,’ but these meanings aren’t relevant to this discussion.
Some believe that ‘presume’ means to believe without prior or direct proof. Others assert that it refers to belief subject to future or further proof. And others believe it is a belief based on a reasonable probability. Still others believe that ‘presume’ means the same as ‘assume’ but implies arrogance or overconfidence on the part of the believer.
With the exception of the latter meaning involving arrogance or overconfidence, the differences are indeed subtle.
As slight as the differences are, I think we can usually use them as synonyms without much concern. Sometimes, the wording or the context calls for one term over the other, and in those cases, I would rely on my instinct or ear: If there is an association with confidence/overconfidence, I would use ‘presume.’