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Putative (-ly) vs. Supposed (-ly) vs. Ostensible (-y)

I’m trying hard to figure out the differences and proper usages of these three particular words (primarily putative vs. supposed). Can putative (-ly) be used in the same spots supposed (-ly) can? What’s the nuance between them?

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There seems to be a slight difference in how true you believe something to be. All definitions from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

putative - "believed to be the person or thing mentioned", synonym - presumed (no element of doubt seems to be involved here - Oxford Concise says "Generally considered or reputed to be") - "the putative father of two" - most commonly used with "father(s), author, parents", in fact there's something called 'The Putative Father Registry'.

ostensible - "seeming or stated to be real or true, when this is perhaps not the case (or not necessarily so - Oxford Concise)", synonym apparent - "The ostensible reason for his absence was illness." - seems to collocate especially with "purpose, reason, cause"

supposed - "used to show that you think that a claim, statement or way of describing somebody/something is not true or correct, although it is generally believed to be" , synonym alleged - "When did this supposed accident happen?"

Ostensible and supposed do seem to be quite close, however, but supposed seems to be used with a far wider range of words than the other two.

@jayles - I think something got left off your graph - add 'power' to 'putative' and the picture changes somewhat. If you want to compare frequency, I suggest this might give a more accurate picture (avoiding supposed as a past form) -

Adding an asterisk to each item will give you common collocations.

"the supposed" seems to be the most common - 253 at the British National Corpus, as opposed to 50 for "the putative" and 36 for "the ostensible"

Warsaw Will Jun-26-2014

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So if we talk about the truth value in these words, it would have putative as the highest, ostensible as the middle, and supposed as the lowest:


>Putative (we'll give it a percentage of, say, 70%)

>Ostensible (≈50%)

>Supposed (≈30%)


Jasper Jun-26-2014

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There does seem to be a key difference between 'putative' and the other two: if something is putative, it is generally believed, but not usually openly stated (yet), as far as I can see. Whereas the other two refer to something which has been openly stated, but which leave some room for doubt.

In the first three examples, the person named is presumed to be going to take the position named, but no announcement had yet been made at the time.

"The first thing to ask about any real contender for British Sunday glory is who's editing it: the putative editor here is Dominic Mohan, aka the Monday to Saturday editor of the Sun." The Guardian

"Renzi remedy? For all his charisma, Italy’s putative new Prime Minister is far from sure to deliver on his promises " The Independent

"Newt Gingrich, a putative Republican candidate next year, has thrown his weight behind the idea." - The Economist

Here the person presumed to be the founder is not saying:

"Putative Bitcoin Founder Categorically Denies It" - The New York Times

And here it is used in its legal sense, to mean the presumed father.

"If the putative father isn’t at the birth and the unwed mother is on welfare or seeking child support, she must identify the man she thinks is the father. He is then served with legal papers. If he doesn’t respond, judges usually name him the father by default. " - The New York Times

In fact 'presumed' could be used in all the examples above. On the other hand, in the next one, from the Economist blog, "putative" is being used more like "supposed" or "what was ostensibly":

"A recent study found that 25% of putative cod or haddock bought from fishmongers and take-away restaurants were not even the right species."

Warsaw Will Jun-26-2014

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At common law there is a presumption that the husband is the father of a child born during the course of a marriage. (Maybe one in twenty-five aren't, so ask your mum!) That's why
"putative" is the go-to word in legal jargon.
"Ostensible father" would to me suggest that the guy in the father role is just pretending.

jayles the unwoven Jun-28-2014

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@jayles - Or that the mother knows something the ostensible father doesn't:

"It is not entirely clear why this fascinates Stephen except that if his ostensible father Simon Dedalus was a cuckold, perhaps he, Stephen, has another “real” and unknown father"

"Many others are instances of 'cuckoldry' in which the young in question are indeed those of their ostensible mother but have been sired by someone other than their ostensible father"

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