Mastering Presupposition: A Pragmatic Perspective

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  • In our daily interaction, we often rely on a shared understanding between speakers and listeners. When we utter phrases like "this," "he," or "Jennifer," we implicitly expect our audience to grasp the intended referent. Such assumptions form the bedrock of linguistic interaction, shaping the way we craft our messages. While occasionally misguided, these assumptions typically align with our audience's knowledge. It is within this realm of assumed truths that the concept of presupposition emerges.

Defining Presupposition

Presupposition refers to the implicit assumptions that speakers make in their utterances, assuming that certain information is already known or accepted by the listener.

Unlike the explicit content of a statement, presuppositions operate in the background, guiding our understanding of the message being conveyed. These presupposed elements can range from basic background knowledge (e.g., the existence of a "John" when we say "John arrived") to more nuanced cultural norms and shared beliefs (e.g., the negative connotation of "giving up" in the sentence "She finally gave up on her dream").

Mechanisms of Presupposition

Understanding how presuppositions work involves delving into the interplay between language and context. Here, we'll explore the key mechanisms that convey these underlying assumptions:

  1. Linguistic Triggers

    Certain words and grammatical structures act as cues for presuppositions. Lexical triggers include verbs like "stop," "resume," or "regret," which imply a previous state of affairs. Definite descriptions ("the book," "my friend") presuppose the listener knows which specific book or friend is being referred to. Even intonation patterns can play a role, with rising intonation at the end of a statement sometimes indicating a presupposition up for debate.

  2. Contextual Cues

    The surrounding conversation, shared knowledge, and broader context are essential for interpreting presuppositions. Imagine saying "He finally won an election" at a political rally. The presupposition (he has participated in elections before) relies on the context of the event. Previous interactions can also play a role. If you tell a friend, "You never call anymore," the presupposition (you used to call) relies on your history of communication.

Types of Presuppositions

Presuppositions can be further categorized based on the type of information conveyed:

  1. Existential Presuppositions: These make assumptions about the existence of something. Saying "The car is parked outside" presupposes there is a car.
  2. Factive Presuppositions: These presuppose the truth of a proposition. Verbs like "know," "realize," or "regret" often trigger factive presuppositions. For example, "I regret buying that hat" presupposes the speaker actually bought the hat.

Practical Examples

In the realm of linguistic analysis, presupposition reveals itself in subtle yet impactful ways, often guiding our understanding of statements and questions alike. Consider the following examples:

If someone tells you, "Your brother is waiting outside," there is an implicit presupposition that you indeed have a brother. Similarly, when asked, "Why did you arrive late?" the presupposition lies in the assumption that you did, in fact, arrive late.

Delving deeper, let's examine the question, "When did you stop smoking?" Here, multiple presuppositions are at play. The speaker presupposes not only that you used to smoke but also that you no longer do. Such questions, laden with built-in presuppositions, serve as powerful tools for interrogators and trial lawyers, subtly guiding the direction of inquiry.

For instance, if a prosecutor asks, "Okay, Mr. Buckingham, how fast were you going when you went through the red light?" there's a presupposition embedded within the question itself—that Mr. Buckingham did, indeed, go through the red light. Should Mr. Buckingham choose to respond solely to the "How fast" aspect of the question, providing a speed, he effectively confirms the presupposition.

Another method to unveil presuppositions involves negating a sentence and observing if the presupposition remains intact. For instance, whether one states, "My car is a wreck," or its negation, "My car is not a wreck," the underlying presupposition—that the speaker owns a car—persists despite the contradictory meanings of the two statements.

Similarly, consider the statement, "I used to regret marrying him, but I don’t regret marrying him now." Despite the shift in verb from affirmative to negative, the constant presupposition remains unchanged—that the speaker indeed married the individual in question. These examples underscore the pervasive nature of presupposition in language, highlighting its role in shaping our comprehension of utterances and interrogatives alike.

Conclusion

Presupposition reveals the remarkable depth and complexity of human language and interaction. By recognizing and understanding how presuppositions function, we gain a deeper appreciation for how meaning is constructed and conveyed beyond the surface level of communication.

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  • References
    • Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics (chapter 4) Cambridge University Press
    • Marmaridou, S. (2010) “Presupposition” in L. Cummings (ed.) The Pragmatics Encyclopedia (349 – 353) Routledge

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