Presupposition in Pragmatics


When someone speaks to us, we typically make all sorts of assumptions about the background to their utterance which we presume to be mutually known before the utterances ever occurred (Grundy, 2000: 120). One further significant category of pragmatics phenomena is presupposition. Presuppositions are variously defined but in general constitute assumptions or inferences that are implicit in particular linguistic expressions. For example, in the following utterance:

The doctor managed to save the baby’s life.

It is assumed that the doctor tried to save the baby’s life. Moreover, this assumption is implicit in the meaning of the verb ‘managed’. Yet this assumption is in no way part of the semantic meaning of this verb (Cummings, 2001: 29-30).The defeasibility of presuppositions cannot be explained by any semantic treatment of this notion that is based on truth conditions – the contextual assumptions that override the presupposition normally attached to ‘manage’ are not part of the truth conditions of the sentence that contains this verb. In order to address issues such as defeasibility, theorists have proposed various pragmatic analyses of presupposition (Cummings, 2005: 32).

Furthermore, Givon in Brown and Yule (1983: 29) defines presupposition as the assumptions the speaker makes about what the hearer is likely to accept without challenge. While Stalnaker still in Brown and Yule (1983: 29) says that presuppositions are what is taken by the speaker to be the common ground of the participants in the conversation. Presupposition as is described by Yule (1996: 27) can be divided into potential and existential presupposition. Potential presupposition related to the use of large number of words, phrase and structures which can only become actual presupposition in context with the speaker. Existential presupposition is not only assumed to be present in possessive constructions, but also more generally in any definite noun phrase.

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