Presuppositions in Language (6): Time

Presuppositions of Time place an event or an action before, after or during some other events or time periods, and can be used to imply a sequence of events in the listener’s internal representations, without explicitly having to say “This happened, then this happened, then this.” The tip-off for this presupposition is verb tenses, or time-related words like ‘when’, ‘stop’, ‘start’, ‘until’, ‘now’, or ‘yet’.


This is a useful one for an aftersales or technical support situation, if someone comes to you with a problem.

You could say to them “I understand you’re having some problems with the product”. Although this is an accurate description of the situation, it’s not the best way to describe it if you want the customer to feel more hopeful, because the ‘-ing’ in ‘having’ implies something ongoing.

You could say “I understand you had some problems with the product” which puts the problems in the past – but that may not fit with the customer’s experience, as they’re probably experiencing the problems as still going on, and they might feel like you’re trying to claim that everything’s OK now, denying their problem.

So instead, what if you said this? “I understand that you’ve been having some problems.” That still fits (or ‘paces’, to use the NLP jargon) the client’s experience – the problems may have been occurring right up to this point – but it also places the experience in the past, and opens up the possibility that we can fix the problems from now on.

Now let’s look at ‘stop’ and ‘start’. Just stop – and notice how much you’ve learned so far. When you tell people to stop, that’s what they tend to do – they stop doing everything, including thinking, at least for a moment, so it’s a good idea to follow that immediately with what you want them to do.

“When did you stop sabotaging yourself?” presupposes that there was a time when you were sabotaging yourself, but that time is now over. “Have you started to realise your potential?” implies that there was a time when you weren’t realising your potential – and that time may or may not be over. “When will you start to realise your potential?” definitely says that you haven’t yet, but suggests that you can.

We can get interesting results if we use a Time presupposition in combination with a presupposition of Awareness. “You may not have realised yet how much you’ve learned” presupposes that the realisation will happen, and of course that the listener has learned something.

How could you use presuppositions of Time in your communication? Or maybe I should be asking when will you start to notice presuppositions of Time consciously?

© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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