Presuppositions in Language (1): Existence

Continuing the series about presuppositions in language, let’s look at the different kinds of presupposition that you can encounter – or use yourself (in fact, you’ve almost certainly been using them naturally anyway, without being aware of it).

If you’re hazy about what presuppositions are, read this short article first then come back: Presuppositions in Language: What Are They?

Presuppositions of Existence

The first kind of presupposition we’re going to look at is the presupposition of existence. The tip-off for it is the presence of things, or people, or places, referred to in the sentence.

Take a look at these examples:

– The management noticed Richard’s ability early on.

– The management only just noticed Richard’s ability.

– The management didn’t notice Richard’s ability.

What’s interesting about this is that in each of them, you had to accept the idea of ‘Richard’s ability’ in order to make sense of the sentence. I didn’t even have to say ‘Richard has this ability and the management noticed it early on’. Just mentioning the noun ‘ability’, almost in passing, while your attention was on Richard and the management, was enough to presuppose that it did in fact exist.

Just like in those examples, presuppositions are able to create internal representations in the listener’s or reader’s mind (or put ideas in people’s heads, as we’d say in everyday English), while the conscious attention of the listener or reader, and hence any resistance they might have, is displaced elsewhere in the sentence.

Of course, if someone sits down and thinks about it, they could say ‘Hang on, who says that he actually has this ability?’ but more than likely their attention will have been on the other elements, so they accept the existence of the ability without being consciously aware of it.

Notice also how it doesn’t matter if there’s a negative in the sentence – in order to make sense of ‘They didn’t notice Richard’s ability’, you still have to accept the existence of the ability, almost without thinking of it. Whether the sentence is positive or negative in nature, the effect of the presupposition is still the same.

How to Use Presuppositions of Existence

Presuppositions of existence can be very useful in questions, especially open questions. If someone asks a closed question, “Have you had any benefits from studying this material so far?” you could answer “no”, even if there have been lots of benefits but it’s just taking you a while to think what they are.

On the other hand, when you ask the open question “What benefits have you had from studying this material so far?”, it presupposes that there have been some, and it makes it easier for the listener to find them and bring them to conscious attention. This is a very useful structure to remember if you’re doing coaching, or if you’re doing assessment or gathering feedback which at the same time can also embed learning or get customers to realise just how much they’ve got from your product or service.

You might think that it will be hard work trying to consciously remember to build presuppositions into what you say. Actually, you can trust your unconscious mind with this task.

For example, if you’ve been teaching someone and you genuinely believe, or even just assume, that the students will have gained some benefits from studying the material, “What benefits have you had?” will feel like a very natural thing to say.

Your internal representations (including beliefs, values, expectations etc) shape everything you say – so if you have an internal representation that your students have had benefit from studying the material, or your coaching or therapy clients have all the internal resources they need to succeed, this will naturally shape the presuppositions that come out in your language, without you having to make a conscious effort.

An Assignment (Should You Choose to Accept It)

Think of a quality that you would like to have more of. This could be kindness, courage, persistence – anything, as long as it’s something you value.

Now assume that you have that quality somewhere, even if you haven’t noticed it yet, or it doesn’t put in an appearance as often as you would like.

Now complete these statements and questions that presuppose the existence of the quality, filling in the actual word.

  • How does my <quality> show up in my life? (or work, or whatever)
  • When do I notice my <quality>?
  • What would life be like if I allowed my <quality> to come out a little more often?
  • How can I encourage and develop my <quality>?

(Note how placing ‘my’ in front of the quality presupposes that it exists and that you have it)

Write these statements and questions out, and experiment with saying them out loud. How does that feel? What’s different about your future when you presuppose its existence?

NLP language patterns book

Want to know all about NLP language patterns? This is the book you need: Practical NLP 2: Language (available in paperback or Kindle ebook format)

© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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