Class 4, Grade 2008
The School of Foreign Languages
China West Normal University
A Paper for Presupposition on Pragmatics
In pragmatics, there is an appeal to the idea that speakers assume certain information is already known by their listeners. Because it is treated as known, such information will generally not be stated and consequently will count as part of what is communicated but not said. The technical terms presupposition is used to describe this kind of information.
In order to discuss this topic, we need to some introduction to the type of analytic discussion associated with the logical analysis of these of these phenomena.
In the branch of linguistics known as pragmatics, and presupposition is an
implicit assumption about the world or background belief relating to an utterance whose truth is taken for granted in discourse, and a presupposition is something the speaker assumes to be the case prior to making an utterance. Speakers, not sentences, have presupposition.
Examples of presuppositions include:
; Do you want to do it again?
o Presupposition: that you have done it already, at least once.
; Jane no longer writes fiction.
o Presupposition: that Jane once wrote fiction.
A presupposition must be mutually known or assumed by the speaker and addressee for the utterance to be considered appropriate in context. It will
generally remain a necessary assumption whether the utterance is placed in the form of an assertion, denial, or question, and can be associated with a specific lexical item or grammatical feature (presupposition trigger) in the utterance. Crucially, negation of an expression does not change its presuppositions: I want
to do it again and I don't want to do it again both presuppose that the subject has
done it already one or more times; My wife is pregnant and My wife is not
pregnant both presuppose that the subject has a wife. In this respect, presupposition is distinguished from entailment and implicature. For example, The president was assassinated entails that The president is dead, but if the
expression is negated, the entailment is not necessarily true. Negation of a sentence containing a presupposition
If presuppositions of a sentence are not consistent with the actual state of affairs, then one of two approaches can be taken. Given the sentences My wife is
pregnant and My wife is not pregnant when one has no wife, then either:
1. Both the sentence and its negation are false; or
2. Strawson's approach: Both "my wife is pregnant" and "my wife is not
pregnant" use a wrong presupposition (i.e. that there exists a referent
which can be described with the noun phrase my wife) and therefore can
not be assigned truth values.
Bertrand Russell tries to solve this dilemma with two interpretations of the negated sentence:
1. “There exists exactly one person, who is my wife and who is not
2. “There does not exist exactly one person, who is my wife and who is
For the first phrase, Russell would claim that it is false, whereas the second would be true according to him.
Projection of presuppositions
A presupposition of a part of an utterance is sometimes also a presupposition of the whole utterance, and sometimes not. We've seen that the phrase my wife
triggers the presupposition that I have a wife. The first sentence below carries that presupposition, even though the phrase occurs inside an embedded clause. In the second sentence, however, it does not. John might be mistaken about his belief that I have a wife, or he might be deliberately trying to misinform his audience, and this has an effect on the meaning of the second sentence, but, perhaps surprisingly, not on the first one.
1. John thinks that my wife is beautiful.
2. John said that my wife is beautiful.
Thus, this seems to be a property of the main verbs of the sentences, think and
say, respectively. After work by Lauri Karttunen, verbs that allow presuppositions to “pass up” to the whole sentence (“project”) are called holes,
and verbs that block such passing up, or projection of presuppositions are called
plugs. Some linguistic environments are intermediate between plugs and holes: They block some presuppositions and allow others to project. These are called filters. An example of such an environment is indicative conditionals (“If-then”
clauses). A conditional sentence contains an antecedent and a consequent. The
antecedent is the part preceded by the word “if” and the consequent is the part
that is (or could be) preceded by “then.” If the consequent contains a
presupposition trigger, and the triggered presupposition is explicitly stated in the antecedent of the conditional, then the presupposition is blocked. Otherwise, it is allowed to project up to the entire conditional. Here is an example:
If I have a wife, then my wife is blonde.
Here, the presupposition triggered by the expression my wife (that I have a wife)
is blocked, because it is stated in the antecedent of the conditional: That sentence doesn't imply that I have a wife. In the following example, it is not stated in the antecedent, so it is allowed to project, i.e. the sentence does imply that I have a
If it's already 4am, then my wife is probably angry.
Hence, conditional sentences act as filters for presuppositions that are triggered
by expressions in their consequent.
A significant amount of current work in semantics and pragmatics is devoted to a proper understanding of when and how presuppositions project.
A presupposition trigger is a lexical item or linguistic construction which is
responsible for the presupposition. The following is a selection of
presuppositional triggers following Stephen C. Levinson's classic textbook on Pragmatics, which in turn draws on a list produced by Lauri Karttunen. As is customary, the presuppositional triggers themselves are italicized, and the symbol ? stands for „presupposes‟
Main article: Definite description
Definite descriptions are phrases of the form "the X" where X is a noun phrase. The description is said to be proper when the phrase applies to exactly one object,
and conversely, it is said to be improper when either there exists more than one
potential references, as in "the senator from Ohio", or none at all, as in "the king
of France". In conventional speech, definite descriptions are implicitly assumed to be proper, hence such phrases trigger the presupposition that the referent is unique and existent.
; John saw the man with two heads.
?There exists a man with two heads.
See also: Epistemology&Truth
In Western epistemology, there is a tradition originating with Plato of defining knowledge as justified true belief. On this definition, for someone to know X, it is required that X be true. A linguistic question thus arises regarding the usage of
John knows X”implicitly claim the truth such phrases: does a person who states “
of X? Steven Pinker discusses the usage of the phrase "having learned" as an example of a factual verb in George W. Bush's statement that “British
Intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa. The factuality thesis, the proposition that
relational predicates having to do with knowledge, such as knows, learn,
remembers, and realized, presuppose the factual truth of their object, however, was subject to notable criticism by Allan Hazlett. Martha regrets drinking John's
?Martha drank John's home brew.
; Frankenstein was aware that Dracula was there.
?Dracula was there.
; John realized that he was in debt.
?John was in debt.
; It was odd how proud he was.
?He was proud.
Some further factual predicates: know; be sorry that; be proud that; be indifferent
that; be glad that; be sad that.
; John managed to open the door.
?John tried to open the door.
; John forgot to lock the door.
?John ought to have locked, or intended to lock, the door.
Some further implicative predicates: X happened to V?X didn't plan or intend to
V; X avoided V-ing ?X was expected to, or usually did, or ought to V, etc.
Change of state verbs
; John stopped beating his wife.
?John had been beating his wife.
; Joan began beating her husband.
?Joan hadn't been beating her husband.
; Kissinger continued to rule the world.
??Kissinger had been ruling the world. Some further change of sate verbs: start; finish; carry on; cease; take (as in X took Y from Z ? Y was at/in/with Z); leave; enter; come; go; arrive; etc.
; The flying saucer came again.
?The flying saucer came before.
; You can't get gobstoppers anymore.
?You once could get gobstoppers.
; Carter returned to power.
?Carter held power before.
Further iteratives: another time; to come back; restore; repeat; for the nth time.
; Before Strawson was even born, Frege noticed presuppositions.
?Strawson was born.
; While Chomsky was revolutionizing linguistics, the rest of social science
?Chomsky was revolutionizing linguistics. ; Since Churchill died, we've lacked a leader.
Further temporal clause constructors: after; during; whenever; as (as in As John
was getting up, he slipped).
; Cleft construction: It was Henry that kissed Rosie.
?Someone kissed Rosie.
; Pseudo-cleft construction: What John lost was his wallet.
?John lost something.
Comparisons and contrasts
Comparisons and contrasts may be marked by stress (or by other prosodic
means), by particles like “too”, or by comparatives constructions.
; Marianne called Adolph a male chauvinist, and then HE insulted HER.
?For Marianne to call Adolph a male chauvinist would be to insult him.
; Carol is a better linguist than Barbara.
?Barbara is a linguist.
; If the notice had only said „mine-field‟ in English as well as Welsh, we
would never have lost poor Llewellyn.
?The notice didn't say „mine-field‟ in English.
; Is there a professor of Linguistics at MIT?
?Either there is a professor of Linguistics at MIT or there isn't.
; Who is the professor of Linguistics at MIT?
?Someone is the professor of Linguistics at MIT.
; John's children are very noisy.
?John has children.
Accommodation of presuppositions
A presupposition of a sentence must normally be part of the common ground of the utterance context (the shared knowledge of the interlocutors) in order for the sentence to be felicitous. Sometimes, however, sentences may carry presuppositions that are not part of the common ground and nevertheless be felicitous. For example, I can, upon being introduced to someone, out of the blue explain that my wife is a dentist, this without my addressee having ever heard, or
having any reason to believe that I have a wife. In order to be able to interpret my utterance, the addressee must assume that I have a wife. This process of an addressee assuming that a presupposition is true, even in the absence of explicit information that it is, is usually called presupposition accommodation. We have just seen that presupposition triggers like my wife (definite descriptions) allow
for such accommodation. In “Presupposition and Anaphora: Remarks on the
Formulation of the Projection Problem”, the philosopher Saul Kripke noted that
some presupposition triggers do not seem to permit such accommodation. An
example of that is the presupposition trigger too. This word triggers the
presupposition that, roughly, something parallel to what is stated has happened. For example, if pronounced with emphasis on John, the following sentence
triggers the presupposition that somebody other than John had dinner in New York last night.
John had dinner in New York last night, too.
But that presupposition, as stated, is completely trivial, given what we know about New York. Several million people had dinner in New York last night, and that in itself doesn't satisfy the presupposition of the sentence. What is needed for the sentence to be felicitous is really that somebody relevant to the interlocutors had dinner in New York last night, and that this has been mentioned in the previous discourse, or that this information can be recovered from it. Presupposition triggers that disallow accommodation are called anaphoric presupposition triggers.
Presupposition in Critical discourse analysis
Critical discourse analysis (CDA) seeks to identify presuppositions of an ideological nature. CDA is critical, not only in the sense of being analytical, but also in the ideological sense. Van Dijk (2003) says CDA “primarily studies the
way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality” operate in speech acts
(including written text)—“text and talk”. Van Dijk describes CDA as written
from a particular point of view: “dissendent research” aimed to “expose” and
“resist social inequality.” One notable feature of ideological presuppositions
researched in CDA is a concept termed synthetic personalisation.