06 April, 2009

Presupposition and Entailment

Presupposition is what the speaker assumes to be the case prior to making an utterance. Entailment, which is not a pragmatic concept, is what logically follows from what is asserted in the utterance. Speakers have presuppositions while sentences, not speakers, have entailments. Take a look at the example below:

Jane’s brother bought two apartments.

This sentence presupposes that Jane exists and that she has a brother. The speaker may also hold the more specific presupposition that she has only a brother and her brother has a lot of money. All these presuppositions are held by the speaker and all of them can be wrong.

In pragmatics entailment is the relationship between two sentences where the truth of one (A) requires the truth of the other (B).
For example, the sentence (A) The president was assassinated. entails (B) The president is dead.


The concept of presupposition is often treated as the relationship between two propositions. In the case below, we have a sentence that contains a proposition (p) and another proposition (q), which is easily presupposed by any listener. However, the speaker can produce a sentence by denying the proposition (p), obtaining as a result the same presupposition (q).

Debora’s cat is cute. (p)

Debora has a cat. (q)

When I say that Debora’ s cat is cute, this sentence presupposes that Debora has a cat. In

Debora’ s cat is not cute. (NOT p)

the same thing holds true, that is, it presupposes that she has a cat. This property of presupposition is generally described as constancy under negation. Basically, it means that the presupposition of a statement will remain constant (i.e. still true) even when that statement is negated.

Types of Presupposition

In the analysis of how speakers’ assumptions are typically expressed, presupposition has been associated with the use of a large number of words, phrases and structures. These linguistic forms are considered here as indicators of potential presupposition, which can only become actual presupposition in contexts with speakers. The types of presupposition are:

1-Existential presupposition: it is the assumption of the existence of the entities named by the speaker.

For example, when a speaker says "Tom’s car is new", we can presuppose that Tom exists and that he has a car.

2-Factive presupposition: it is the assumption that something is true due to the presence of some verbs such as "know" and "realize" and of phrases involving glad, for example. Thus, when a speaker says that she didn’t realize someone was ill, we can presuppose that someone is ill. Also, when she says "I’m glad it’s over”, we can presuppose that it’s over.

3-Lexical presupposition: it is the assumption that, in using one word, the speaker can act as if another meaning (word) will be understood. For instance:

Andrew stopped running. (>>He used to run.)

You are late again. (>> You were late before.)

In this case, the use of the expressions "stop" and "again" are taken to presuppose another (unstated) concept.

4-Structural presupposition: it is the assumption associated with the use of certain words and phrases. For example, wh-question in English are conventionally interpreted with the presupposition that the information after the wh-form (e.g. when and where) is already known to be the case.

When did she travel to the USA? ( >> she traveled)
Where did you buy the book? (>> you bought the book)

The listener perceives that the information presented is necessarily true rather than just the presupposition of the person asking the question.

5- Non- factive presupposition: it is an assumption that something is not true. For example, verbs like "dream", "imagine" and "pretend" are used with the presupposition that what follows is not true.

I dreamed that I was rich. (>> I am not rich)
We imagined that we were in London. (>> We are not in London)

6-Counterfactual presupposition: it is the assumption that what is presupposed is not only untrue, but is the opposite of what is true, or contrary to facts. For instance, some conditional structures, generally called counterfactual conditionals, presuppose that the information, in the if- clauses, is not true at the time of utterance.

If you were my daughter, I would not allow you to do this. ( > you are not my daughter)

Projection Problem

Yule has also called attention to the projection problem, which occurs when a simple sentence becomes part of a more complex sentence. In this case, the meaning of some presupposition (as a part) doesn’t survive to become the meaning of a more complex sentence (as a whole).

a)Nobody realized that Kelly was unhappy

b)I imagined that Kelly was unhappy.

c)I imagined that Kelly was unhappy and nobody realized that she was unhappy.

Through these examples, we can observe that, when the speaker utters (a), we can presuppose that she was unhappy and that, when she utters (b), we can presuppose that she was not unhappy. However, when the speaker utters (c), we can't understand what the speaker means by that utterance without a context because the two parts have an opposite meaning.

However, it does not mean that there are no situations in which the combination of two simple sentences in a complex one can be possible. For example:

a) It’s so sad. Blaine regrets getting Laura fired. (>> Blaine got Laura fired)
b) Blaine regrets getting Laura fired, but he didn’t get her fired.

One way to think about the whole sentence presented in b) is as an utterance by a person reporting what happened in the film that day. In the example above, when the speaker utters he didn’t get her fired actually entails Blaine didn’t get her fired as a logical consequence. Thus, when the person who watched the film tells you that Blaine regrets getting Laura fired, but he didn’t get her fired, you have a presupposition q and NOT q. In this case, we can infer that Blaine thought he was the cause of Laura’s discharge, but, in fact, he was not.

This shows that entailments (necessary consequences of what is said) are simply more powerful than presuppositions (earlier assumptions). In the example below, the power of entailment can also be used to cancel existential presuppositions .

The King of Brazil visited us. (The king of Brazil does not exist).

Ordered entailments

Generally speaking, entailment is not a pragmatic concept (i.e. having to do with the speaker meaning), but it is considered a purely logical concept.

Observe the examples below:

1)Bob ate three sandwiches.

a) Something ate three sandwiches.

b)Bob did something to three sandwiches.

c) Bob ate three of something.

d)Something happened.

When a speaker utters sentence (1), the speaker is necessarily committed to the truth of a very large number of background knowledge. On any occasion, in uttering (1), however, the speaker will indicate how these entailments are to be ordered. That is, the speaker will communicate, typically by stress, which entailment is assumed to be the foreground, or more important for interpreting intended meaning, than any others. For example, when the speaker utters the following sentences, she indicates that the foreground entailment, and hence her main assumption, is that Bob ate a certain number of sandwiches.

a) Bob ate THREE sandwiches.
b) BOB ate three sandwiches.

In b), the focus shifts to BOB, and the main assumption is that someone ate three sandwiches. The stress in English functions to mark the main assumption of the speaker in producing an utterance. As such, it allows the speaker to mark for the listener what the focus of the message is, and what is being assumed.

A very similar function is exhibited by a structure called cleft construction in English, as we can observe in the example below:

a) It was VICTOR that did the work.
b) It wasn’t ME who took your jacket.

In both the examples above, the speaker can communicate what she believes the listener may already be thinking (i.e. the foreground entailment). In b), that foreground entailment (someone took your jacket) is being made in order to deny personal responsibility. The utterance in b) can be used to attribute the foreground entailment to the listener(s) without actually stating it (as a possible accusation).

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