How Good Are You at Identifying Presuppositions in Language?

Try This Quick ‘Presuppositions or Assumptions’ Exercise

Imagine someone said the following sentence to you:

“I’m not sure whether or not I should stop fiddling my expense claims.”

Now, here are some comments on that sentence, and your job is to identify whether they are presupposed in the sentence, or just assumptions that the commenter has made that aren’t necessarily true. Answers are at the bottom of the article – no peeking!

a) He is claiming expenses. Presupposition, or unwarranted assumption? Take a moment to think about your answer…

b) He doesn’t like his job. Presupposition, or assumption?

c) He currently fiddles his expenses. Presupposition, or assumption?

d) He is an indecisive character. Presupposition, or assumption?

Answers

a) He is claiming expenses. Presupposition, or unwarranted assumption?

It’s presupposed in the sentence. It would make no sense to say “my expense claims” if the person could not claim expenses. Actually, just to show that presuppositions are everywhere, that comment contains another presupposition, which is what? …

… Yes, ‘he’ presupposes that the speaker is male.

b) He doesn’t like his job. Presupposition, or assumption?

It’s an assumption. The sentence says nothing about how he feels about his job, and we would be jumping to conclusions if we decided he didn’t like it. In NLP, by the way, this pattern of making assumptions about what someone is thinking or feeling is called a ‘mind read’, and you will have noticed that people do it all the time (extra points if you spotted that ‘you will have noticed’ is also an example of a ‘mind read’).

c) He currently fiddles his expenses. Presupposition, or assumption?

It makes no sense to talk about stopping fiddling expenses unless the speaker is already doing it, so that presupposes that the fiddling is already going on.

d) He is an indecisive character.

It would be jumping to conclusions to decide that his whole character is indecisive on the basis of one example. He might be ultra-decisive in every other area of his life – so it’s just an assumption.

Next week: a couple more free exercises to develop your ability to identify linguistic presuppositions!

If you’d like more NLP training activities (either as a professional trainer or to try out in an NLP practice group), get The Trainer’s Pack of NLP Exercises or download 15 free sample activities here.

© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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