Presuppositions in Language (7): Adverb/Adjective

Interestingly, the important thing about both adjectives and adverbs is that you already use both of them expertly, even if you didn’t know that’s what they were called.

If you’re a little shaky on the distinction between these terms, here’s an easy definition: an adjective modifies a noun (e.g. ‘beautiful plumage’), while an adverb modifies a verb (‘hitting the cage repeatedly’) or an adjective (‘that parrot is definitely deceased’).

So the adjective ‘easy’ in ‘easy definition’ leads you to expect that what follows will be easy to understand, and it probably is easier than if we just said ‘this is the definition’, if only because you won’t be telling yourself ‘this is going to be hard’. ‘Easy’ and ‘hard’ are both adjectives. See how they change the way your internal representation of whatever noun they’re applied to? If I say ‘here’s the important thing about adjectives’, that pretty much ensures that you’ll pay more attention to it than the rest of the presentation.

Now, fortunately, when you put an adverb at the start of a sentence, it places a frame around what you’re going to say that tells people how to receive that information. Here are three examples of exactly the same information, but using different adverbs to put different frames around it. Notice how each one would be received:

‘Unfortunately, sales were unchanged this year.’ Oh no! It’s terrible! No increase in sales!

‘Fortunately, sales were unchanged this year.’ Phew! What a relief! We must have been expecting them to go down – or that’s what’s implied by ‘fortunately’ anyway.

‘Interestingly, sales were unchanged this year.’ Well, yes, that is interesting. I wonder what caused that?

See how useful adverb and adjective presuppositions could be?

This might be a productive exercise: next time you read a news item or a book, see how many adjective and adverb presuppositions you can spot in a page. Notice how they modify the information being presented.

Surprisingly, you might find quite a few if you monitor your own internal dialogue too. Notice the effect each adjective or adverb presupposition has; is it helping you, or getting in the way? What adjective or adverb presupposition might you use instead in each case to get better results?

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© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Giles Hayes

    I use adjective adverb presuppositions daily in my pitch as a professional fundraiser.

    For instance I might say when I’m asking people to join the wildlife trust “I’m afraid it does involve money but that’s not the only reason we are asking you because (Naturally), when you decide to become a member it also means you give us your voice … and that gives nature a voice ! Are you with me ?”.

    When I say “naturally when you decide to become a member”, there is a presupposition they are going to become a member. The issue is no longer whether they are going to become a member or not. It’s whether they will do it naturally, so the presupposition/l of deciding to become a member flies completely under the radar.

  2. Andy Smith

    Sounds like you’ve got a great real-life ‘lab’ there to test out language patterns for persuasion!

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