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What Is a Presupposition?

Daniel Liden
Updated May 23, 2024
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A presupposition is a particular belief that must be held for a particular rhetorical structure, such as a sentence, to be understood as correct in a given context. Both the speaker or writer and the listeners or readers must share this background belief in order to effectively communicate and understand ideas. The sentence "Jane goes to the grocery store after she finishes work," for instance, includes the presupposition that there is a unique individual named Jane; that she is physically capable of getting to the grocery store; and that she does, indeed, work. Presuppositions do not need to be profound, and it is often unnecessary to state them explicitly, but if different people make different presuppositions, understanding may be difficult to achieve.

Presupposition is specifically studied in a subfield of linguistics known as "pragmatics." This subfield primarily examines the connection between context and meaning. One of the main concerns of pragmatics is understanding the implicit meaning in statements. Presupposition is in the domain of pragmatics, then, because presuppositions are seldom explicitly communicated and are instead generally understood implicitly. The sentence "Carl fell out of the tree," for instance, demands the presupposition that Carl was, in fact, in a tree, though it is not necessary to state this explicitly, as it can be understood without such a statement.

A presupposition may be considered "actual" or "potential" based on the presentation of the information being presupposed. The statement "Sarah said that Dave just got back from Florida" presupposes that there is a unique entity called "Sarah" and that there is a unique entity called "Dave" who was, until recently, in Florida. The presupposition that there is a unique entity called "Sarah" is necessary for the sentence to make sense and is considered to be actual. The notions that there is a unique entity called "Dave" and that that entity was, until recently, in Florida are potential presuppositions because they were reported by a third party. It is possible that Sarah did, indeed, make that claim and that she was completely wrong, thereby making the presuppositions about Dave and Florida false.

There are many different words and linguistic constructions, called presupposition triggers, that can be used to identify presuppositions. Many verbs, for instance, often indicate the presence of one or more presuppositions. In the sentence "Jacob realized that his bicycle was broken," the verb "realized" is a trigger. The realization presupposes that there is a bicycle and that it is broken. Such triggers exist in many different forms, including comparisons, questions, and temporal clauses.

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Daniel Liden
By Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to his work. With a diverse academic background, he crafts compelling content on complex subjects, showcasing his ability to effectively communicate intricate ideas. He is skilled at understanding and connecting with target audiences, making him a valuable contributor.
Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Jul 27, 2014

@bear78-- I think entailment is when there are two sentences and in order for one sentence to be true, the other has to be true as well. And implicature is just an implication made in a sentence. So something is implied in an indirect way.

A presupposition is an assumption about that sentence that both the speaker and the listener must accept or agree with in order for it to make sense. I can see how someone could confuse implicature and presupposition.

The issue with presuppositions is that if the assumption turns out to be false, then the whole statement falls apart and becomes false. So even though the assumption is not said outright, it's very important.

By bear78 — On Jul 27, 2014

My teacher mentions presupposition along with implicature and entailment often in class. I think she mentioned their meaning the first class but I don't remember. Can anyone tell me what the differences are between these?

By ysmina — On Jul 26, 2014

When we see a sentence with a presupposition, we don't sit and think of whether there is truth to it. I mean no one questions the existence of a person or a store or a job when a statement is made about them. And it's not necessary either because people often talk about things that others already know. So if Sarah talks about Dave to me, I probably know Dave and so I don't need to wonder about his existence. Presuppositions are everywhere and no one thinks about them.

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to...
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