Presuppositions in Language: What Are They?

This article is the first in a series looking at ‘linguistic presuppositions’ or presuppositions in language – the implicit statements embedded in what people say or write that you have to take as true (‘presuppose’) in order to make sense of it. When you can spot these, you can ‘read between the lines’ of what someone is saying or writing to discover their unstated beliefs and assumptions.

You can also build presuppositions into your own language in order to help your audience or clients to make changes – to loosen limiting beliefs, get them to change their minds, or to make a sale easier.

Pretty much everything you say, everything you hear, everything you read, has presuppositions in it, which influence the internal representations of the listener – or your internal representations if you are listening to someone else.

Presuppositions are useful for both recognising what is assumed by in what someone says, and assisting in creating internal representations for other people.

We’ve already encountered the ‘presuppositions of NLP’ in previous articles. These are what you have to assume to be true, or act as if they are true, in order to get NLP to work for you; in effect they’re like the ‘principles’ of NLP.

In this short article series we’ll look in more detail at the different kinds of presuppositions that can show up in everyday language, and how to spot them. This will enable you to read between the lines of what someone is saying, and give you information about their map of the world that the average person would miss.

Knowing about presuppositions will also enable you (with practice) to be able to structure and sequence the internal representations of people you talk with, manage, coach, or write for, in a way that will help you to get your message across, influence and develop people in the most effective way.

Most people aren’t aware of how the presuppositions in their language impact the effectiveness of their message. Sometimes they will undermine or contradict what they really want to say, without even realising it. As you practice and get better at using presuppositions with awareness and intention, you will find that your ability to get your message across, to influence people, to manage and develop people, gets better and better. Being aware of the presuppositions in your language, and being able to use them effectively, will make a massive difference to your ability to get results with NLP.

I’ve said that presuppositions are things that you have to assume are true in order to make sense of what the person is saying. But they’re not explicitly stated in words. If someone says to you, “I only closed the deal on the fourth meeting”, you instantly know how many meetings they’ve had, and that the deal wasn’t closed in the first three. They don’t have to explicitly say “I had four meetings and I didn’t close the deal in the first three but I did in the fourth one.” You know there were three previous meetings, because the word “fourth” presupposes that.

You’ve probably heard the saying that when you assume something, it makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. To get better results than that, we need to be able to distinguish between what’s definitely presupposed in what a person is saying, and assumptions that we might make that would lead us to interpret their statement in a certain way that isn’t necessarily what they meant.

How do we recognise when presuppositions are being used? There are a number of different kinds, each with its own tip-off or linguistic marker that alerts you to the presence of the presupposition. In the articles that follow we’ll look at each kind, and their markers, so you can learn to identify them – and how to use them.

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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