Presupposition in Semantics

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Presupposition in Semantics

IntroductionPresupposition is originated in the field of philosophy and it was proposed by German philosopher Ferge in 1892. In the 1960s, presupposition entered the area of linguistics and became a significant concept in semantics. Later in the 1970s, Keenan introduced presupposition to the pragmatics to describe a relation between a speaker and the appropriateness of a sentence in a context (Levinson: 177). Hence, presupposition can be distinguished into two categories: semantic presupposition and pragmatic presupposition. This thesis is mainly centered on the exploration of presupposition in semantics from the perspectives of features and problems of presupposition. For the sake of searching for the solutions to the problems, the writer also brings two pragmatic theories of presupposition into discussion.

Part I. Two Approaches to PresuppositionIn the linguistics, two approaches to presupposition are semantic and pragmatic. Semantic presupposition views the sentence relations in terms of truth relations while pragmatic presupposition describes sentences as an interaction between individuals.

A.Semantic PresuppositionIn ordinary language, of course, to presuppose something means to assume it, and the narrower technical use in semantics is related to this (Saeed: 93). In semantics, the meaning of a sentence is based on the sentence itself instead of something constructed by the participants. The semantic presupposition is only concerned about the truth value of the statements. For instance,a)John managed to stop in time.

b)John tried to stop in time. (Suo: 130)In the example, sentence a) presupposes sentence b), that is to say, if it is true that John managed to stop in time, it must be true that John tried to stop in time. Meanwhile, if this proposition is false, the presupposition that John tried to stop in time still exists. However, only the truth of sentence b) doesn’t tell anything concerning the result whether he stopped in time or not. Based on the analysis, we can draw a truth table for this presupposition:a bT → TF → TT or F ← TThis table is an overt description of the truth relations between sentence a) and b). If sentence a) is true, then its presupposition b) is also true. If sentence a) is false, then the truth of b) still survives. While if sentence b) is true, sentence a) can be either true or false. The interpretation of presupposition in semantics is on the basis of truth relations.

B.Pragmatic PresuppositionCompared with semantic presupposition- a truth-relation approach, pragmatic presupposition is an interactional approach in interpreting the sentence relations.

Stalnaker argues that presupposition is essentially a pragmatic phenomenon: part of the set of assumptions is made by participants in a conversation, which he terms the common ground (Saeed: 101). This common ground is the mutual knowledge shared by both speaker and hearer. For example, “I am afraid my car broke down.” The presupposition of this utterance is that the speaker has a car, which is known to the hearer. However, if the hearer originally doesn’t know the fact, on hearing the utterance, s/he can take it as a common ground for a further conversation. By virtue of context, appropriate presupposition will help the hearer understand the utterance of the speaker. During the conversation, both speaker and hearer are doing the turn-taking and they can depend on the former utterances to conduct a smooth communication.

By comparison of semantic presupposition and pragmatic presupposition, we can gain a better understanding of this notion applied in the linguistics. However, the focus of this thesis is on the presupposition in the semantics. Thus, the following parts will be concentrated on the semantic presupposition.

Part II. Features of Semantic PresuppositionIn semantics, presupposition possesses unique features: being different from entailment, presupposition is stable under negation. It is produced not only by the definite description, but also by presupposition triggers.

A.StabilitySemantic presupposition relies on the meaning of words and grammatical structures to describe the truth relations between sentences and these aspects don’t vary too much from context to context. Hence, presupposition is relatively stable and it remains constant under negation of the main sentence. This feature of semantic presupposition makes a distinction between entailment and presupposition. For example,a)I borrowed my friend’s bike today.

b)I borrowed something today.

If sentence a) is true, it guarantees the truth of sentence b), to be more specific, a) entails b). However, if we negate a) to form a’) then it no longer entails b), repeated as follows:a’) I didn’t borrow my friend’s bike today.

b’) I borrowed something today.

If it is false that I borrowed my friend’s bike today, it can not tell whether I borrowed something today or not. It might be true that I borrowed something instead of my friend’s bike, but we just don’t know.

In contrast, the presupposing sentence is constant even under negation, for instance,

c)My sister got married last year.

d)I have a sister.

The pre-condition of sentence c) is d), if c) is true then d) must be taken as a fact. In other words, sentence c) has the presupposition in d) and the truth of c) makes sure the truth of d) as well. If negating c) as “My sister didn’t get married last year.” The presupposition that “I have a sister” also survives.

This is the difference between entailment and presupposition, namely, the negation of an entailing sentence leads to the failure of the entailment while negating a presupposing sentence allows the presupposition to survive.

B.Presupposition TriggersOn the one hand, the existence of presupposition can derive from the use of a name or definite description. On the other hand, it can be produced by particular words or sentence constructions, which are called presupposition triggers. Karttunen has collected thirty-one kinds of triggers but in the following section the writer will mainly focus on four types of these triggers: factive verbs, change of state verbs, temporal clauses and cleft sentences.

To begin with, verbs like “regret,” “deplore,” “know” and “agree” are under the category of factive verbs, for they presuppose the truth of the complement clause. For instance,a)Martha regrets/ doesn’t regret drinking John’s home brew.

b)Martha drank John’s home brew. (Suo: 131)Whether Martha regrets drinking John’s home brew or not, it is a known fact that Martha drank John’s home brew. The sentence a) has the presupposition in b). By contrast, no such presupposition exists with the non-factive verb like “think.” For example,c)Tom thought that John was late.

d)John was late.

Sentence c) indicates that it is only Tom’ personal opinion of John’s being late. Actually, John might not be late and the truth doesn’t reveal from the sentence itself. Therefore, sentence c) doesn’t have the presupposition in d) due to the non-factive verb “think.”Secondly, the employments of verbs like “stop,” “start,” “begin” and “finish” imply the change of state. Hence, these lexical triggers are regarded as change of state verbs, which describe the new state and presuppose the former state as well. For instance,a)John stopped/ didn’t stop beating his wife.

b)John had been beating his wife. (Suo: 131)The verb “stop” means making something end and here if John stopped beating his wife, which means that he makes the action of beating his wife end. But if he didn’t stop, the occasion of beating will continue to happen in the future. No matter what the situation is, sentence a) presupposes the fact b) that John had been beating his wife as the former state.

What’s more, not only the lexical words trigger the presupposition, but also clauses like temporal clauses may produce presupposition. For example,a)Linda went to the supermarket before she met her friends.

b)Linda met her friends.

The temporal clause marked by the conjunction “before” shows that Linda went to the supermarket first and then went to meet her friends. In effect, sentence a) states the fact that Linda really met her friends. It is this temporal clause that ensures the truth of sentence b) and also triggers the presupposition in b).

Last but not least, syntactic structure such as cleft sentence can also act as a trigger for the production of certain types of presupposition. For example,a)It was the noise that annoyed me.

b)What annoyed me was the noise.

c)Something annoyed me.

In the example, the cleft construction in a) and the pseudo-cleft in b) share the presupposition in c). No matter how the sentence structure changes, the essence of the sentence remains unchanged. What sentence a) and b) intend to stress is that there is something annoyed me.

By means of the features like stability and presupposition triggers, the real intention of the utterances can be investigated. If the speaker changes the predicate “has” to “hasn’t,” or “does” to “doesn’t,” the presupposition for the utterance is the same, for presupposition is of stability. Presupposition triggers can be used as a tool to present the essence of the sentence, no matter what lexical words and constructions are applied.

Part III. Problems of Semantic PresuppositionIn semantics, this truth-based approach gives rise to problems for the presupposition, such as, presupposition failure, the defeasibility of presupposition and the projection problem.

A.Presupposition FailureOn the basis of truth condition, it has been taken for granted that a name or definite description being used refers to the existent entity in the field of semantics. However, if the named or described entity doesn’t exist, it causes problem for this truth-relation approach, which is known as presupposition failure. The following example is by now the most discussed one in this literature:a)The King of France is bald.

b)There is a King of France. (Saeed: 96)According to the criterion of truth relation, no doubt sentence a) presupposes sentence b), if it is true that there is a King of France. But if there is no King of France, that is to say, the sentence b) is false, the problem is aroused, for it is uncertain whether this presupposition survives or not. Are the sentences like a) true or false, or just in a gray area, neither true nor false? This dubious situation for truth-based approach results in the truth value gap.

For such a problem, Russell offers a famous solution to make an analysis of this definite description as three expressions as follows:The King of France is bald is true if and only if:a)at least one thing is the kingb)at most one thing is the kingc)whatever is the king is bald. (Saeed: 97)From the Russell’s analysis, we know that if there is no King of France, it leads to the falsity of this proposition that the King of France is bald. Thus, there is no gray area between true or false, no truth value gap. However, it seems to be too complex to employ these preconditions for the explanation of one name and it may cost great efforts to analyze the preconditions whenever meet with such kind of statements.

In comparison with truth relation approach, it may be less problematic for an interactional approach. During the communication between the individuals, whenever an unfamiliar name or definite description occurs, the hearer can interrupt the speaker so as to signal the failure of the conversation. For instance, the speaker says to someone, “Mr. Hong will invite us to dinner next Friday.” If the hearer doesn’t know Mr. Hong, it may cause confusion. As the conversation continues, the hearer can ask the speaker who Mr. Hong is. As for the speaker, s/he can take an immediate response to clear up the misunderstanding.

The presupposition failure in semantics results from the narrow question of the truth value of statements about non-existent entities, while in pragmatics, the attention is paid to the more general question of what conventions license a speaker’s referring use of name or definite description.

B.DefeasibilityOne of the peculiar things about presupposition is that it is sensitive to context, either immediate linguistic context or the less immediate discourse context, or in circumstances where contrary assumptions are made. In particular context, the presupposition is cancelled and this phenomenon is known as defeasibility. Two factors result in presupposition cancellation: one is the linguistic context and the other one is background assumption about the world.

One kind of presupposition defeasibility arises in certain types of linguistic context. For example,You say that someone in this room loves Mary. Well maybe so. But it certainly isn’t Fred who loves Mary. And it certainly isn’t John . . . (We continue in this way until we have enumerated all the people in the room). Therefore no one in this room loves Mary. (Suo: 135)In the example, each of the cleft sentences (it certainly isn’t Fred, etc.) are supposed to presuppose that there is someone in this room who loves Mary, for presupposition is constant under negation. However, the speaker intends to persuade the hearer that there is no one in this room who loves Mary by ruling out the possibilities. Therefore, the presupposition that someone in this room loves Mary is defeated in this counterfactual assumption.

Here is another example of the same kind:a)John didn’t manage to pass his exams.

b)John tried to pass his exams.

c)John didn’t manage to pass his exams. In fact he didn’t even try.

Sentence a) has the presupposition in b), but if put a) into such a statement as c), the prior presupposition is abandoned. Without knowing the real fact, if someone makes the utterance that John didn’t manage to pass his exams, it may leave the hearer an impression that at least once he tried to pass his exams. On hearing the fact the hearer will know John’s failure for the exams is due to his lack of efforts in his study. Thus, the presupposition can be cancelled within certain contexts.

The other kind of presupposition defeasibility is caused by our general knowledge of the world. For instance,a)She cried before she finished her thesis.

b)She finished her thesis. (Saeed: 187)As mentioned above, the temporal clause functions as a trigger for the presupposition. Sentence a) with before-clause presupposes that indeed she finished her thesis. However, if the verb in the main clause is changed to “die,” the situation will be totally different. For instance,c)She died before she finished her thesis.

d)She finished her thesis. (Saeed: 187)Since her death preceded the event of finishing her thesis, it is certain that she never finished the thesis. It is common sense that people do not conduct things after they die. Even if sentence c) is expressed with before-clause, it doesn’t have the presupposition in d). As a result of background belief in the real world, the previous presupposition that she finished her thesis is blocked in this context.

C.Projection ProblemLangendoen and Savin suggest that the set of presuppositions of the complex whole is the simple sum of the presuppositions of the parts, i.e. if S0 is a complex sentence containing sentences S1, S2, . . . Sn as constituents, then the presuppositions of S0 = the presuppositions of S1 + the presuppositions of S2 . . . + the presuppositions of Sn (Levinson: 191). For example,S0: John stopped accusing Mary of beating her husband.

S1: John accused Mary of beating her husband.

S1′: John judged that it was bad for Mary to beat her husband.

S2: John stopped doing it.

S2′: Before time T, John did it. (Suo: 136)In the example, sentence S0 is the complex sentence including two parts S1 and S2, to be more specific, from the statement that John stopped accusing Mary of beating her husband, two meanings can be interpreted: one is that John accused Mary of beating her husband and the other one is that John stopped doing it. The presupposition of S1 is S1′, namely, S1 presupposes that John judged that it was bad for Mary to beat her husband. While S2 has the presupposition in S2′, that is to say, S2 presupposes that before time T, John did it. Thus, the presuppositions of S0 are the presupposition of S1 plus the presupposition of S2.

As a matter of fact, this simple solution to the presuppositions of complex sentences is far from correct and it turns out to be impossible to take it as a formula. By using this solution, it is difficult to predict exactly which presuppositions of the parts survive in the whole presupposition of the complex sentences. This compositional problem is called the projection problem for the presuppositions.

The projection problem in the presuppositions has two aspects: on the one hand, presuppositions remain in the linguistic context while entailments disappear. On the other hand, presuppositions are cancelled in certain contexts where entailments survive.

The first aspect of the projection problem is the survival of presuppositions and cancellation of entailments in the same context. As mentioned above, negation is a typical example for the distinction between presupposition and entailment, for presupposition is stable under negation while entailment isn’t. However, there are other situations in which presupposition remains and entailment disappears. For instance,a)Mr. Brown bought four books.

b)There is a Mr. Brown.

c)Mr. Brown bought three books.

d)It is possible that Mr. Brown bought four books.

e)Mr. Brown could have bought four books.

In this example, sentence a) presupposes sentence b) and entails sentence c). If it is true that Mr. Brown bought four books, the precondition for this proposition that there is a Mr. Brown must also be true. And if he already bought four books, he is supposed to have bought three books. However, when the modal operators or modal verbs are embedded in the original statement, the entailment of a) disappears while the presupposition b) still exists. Because modal operators like “possible,” “probable” and modal verbs like “could,” “should” are considered to be a kind of conjecture. The employments of them reveal speaker’s uncertainty about his utterances.

Another situation of the same kind is the compound sentences formed by the connectives “and,” “or,” “if . . . then” and what not. For instance,a)The two students handed in the homework late again this Monday.

b)A student handed in the homework late this Monday.

c)The two students handed in the homework late before.

d)If the two students handed in the homework late again this Monday, their teacher will get angry.

The adverb “again” applied in the sentence a) presupposes that the two students handed in the homework late before. If two students handed in the homework late, it must entail that one of them handed in the homework late. Thus, sentence a) presupposes c) and also entails b). However, if sentence a) is embedded in a complex sentence like d), the utterance a) can only be regarded as an assumption in the complex whole. Hence, the former entailment is abandoned in the new compound sentence but the presupposition that they did before still survives.

The other aspect of the projection problem is that presupposition is blocked while entailment still exists in certain contexts. If the predicates of the utterances are the verbs of propositional attitude such as “want,” “believe,” “imagine,” “dream” and the like, the blocking of presupposition appears to take place. For instance,a)Tom believes he’s the president of America.

b)There is a present president of America.

In this example, sentence a) entails that Tom believes something, but it doesn’t have the presupposition that there is a present president of America. The verb like “believe” is only a non-factive verb, which doesn’t ensure the truth of its complement. Moreover, the employment of it will leave the hearer an impression that what the speaker says is just a personal opinion. Thus, the presupposition is blocked because of the verb “believe.”Another example is given as follows:a)I dreamed that I was a German and that I regretted being a German.

b)I was a German.

In the sentence a), the speaker doesn’t shoulder the responsibility of uttering it by employing the verb “dream.” The application of “dream” indicates that this utterance can not be taken seriously as a fact. However, sentence a) still entails that “I dreamed something,” but doesn’t presuppose that “I was a German.” In such a situation, the complex sentences with certain verbs of propositional attitude block their presuppositions but maintain the entailments.

By means of analyzing the problems of presupposition in the field of semantics, we can draw a conclusion that this truth relation approach is far from adequate to describe the relationships between presupposing and presupposed sentences. Admittedly, the issue of presupposition is not only being discussed in semantics but also in the pragmatics.

Part IV. Pragmatic Theories of PresuppositionAs for pragmatic presupposition, various theories have been put forward by linguists such as Stalnaker, Gazdar and what not. Among these theories, two of them are the most developed theories that deal with the defeasibility and the projection problems. Both theories assume that presuppositions are part of the conventional meaning of expressions, instead of semantic inference.

The first theory has been developed by Karttunen and Peters, which is expressed in the framework of Montague grammar. In the Montague grammar, clauses are built up from their constituents from the bottom up rather than from the top down as in transformational generative grammar (Levinson: 207). The basic idea in this theory is that sentences are built up from their components and the meanings conveyed in these sentences are subject to the words, clauses and so on, but in the presuppositions, meanings are associated with these triggers. According to Karttunen and Peters’ theory, presuppositions are actually non-cancellable.

The meaning expressions that capture the presuppositional content of each presupposition-triggering item will be related with each constituent a heritage expression. If there is a predicate like propositional attitude verb, it will have a heritage expression that blocks the presuppositions ascending to be presupposition of the whole sentence. In such circumstances, presupposition isn’t in fact cancelled, but it is blocked during the process of derivation by the heritage expression. For example,a)Bush thinks that Kerry’s attitude about terrorism is dangerous.

b)Kerry has an attitude about terrorism.

The subordinate clause of sentence a) presupposes that Kerry has an attitude about terrorism. However, the verb “think” has the heritage expression which prevents this presupposition from being the presupposition of the whole.

The other theory is proposed by Gazdar, in which presuppositions are actually cancelled. At the early stage of derivation, the presuppositions of any complex sentence will consist of all the potential presuppositions of the parts. Then a canceling mechanism will begin to work and it only selects these presuppositions which are consistent with all the propositions already in the context. In this theory, the generations of presuppositions adhere to a special order: first the entailments of what are said are added to the context, then the conversational implicatures, and only finally the presupposition (Levinson: 213). In each step, these presuppositions that contradict the former propositions will be eliminated through selection and only the ones being consistent with them will survive. For example,a)If there is a King of France, the King of France doesn’t any longer live in Versaills.

b)The speaker knows that there exists a King of France.

c)It is consistent with all the speaker knows that there is not a King of France. (Suo: 143)In the sentence a), the clause that “the King of France doesn’t any longer live in Versaills” has the potential presupposition in b). However, the conditional sentence a) entails that there is not a King of France. Based on the special order in Gazdar’s theory, this entailment enters into the context before the potential presupposition. Hence, this potential presupposition is cancelled without entering into the context.

Although the two theories are opposing to each other, both of them offer an explanation for the defeasibility of presupposition and projection problem. However, even in the field of pragmatics, adequate solution to the presupposition is not obtained, which needs further developments.

ConclusionIn the field of linguistics, we can probe into the presupposition from two perspectives, namely, semantic presupposition and pragmatic presupposition. This thesis mainly focuses on the interpretation of presupposition in semantics. The writer introduces the features of semantic presupposition like stability under negation and presupposition triggers and then makes an analysis of the problems aroused by this truth-based theory such as presupposition failure, defeasibility and projection problem. To solve these problems, two theories concerning the pragmatic presupposition are discussed. Although both of them offer the explanations for the problems of presupposition, they are not considered to be adequate solutions. The further developments of presupposition rely on the complex interactions between semantics and pragmatics.


Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmtics. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2005.

Saeed, John I. Semantics. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2005.


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  • Date: 16 July 2016

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