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What is a presupposition trigger?



A presupposition trigger is a construction or item that signals the existence of a presupposition in an utterance.

Examples (English)

Both positive and negative forms are presented, showing that the presuppositions are constant under negation:

  • Definite descriptions

    In John saw/didn't see the man with two heads, the definite description the man with two heads triggers the presupposition "There exists a man with two heads." (The unbelievability of the presupposition is what makes the positive utterance unbelievable and the negative one odd.)

  • Factive verbs

    In John realized/didn't realize that he was in debt, both realize and didn't realize that trigger the presupposition "John was in debt."

    Other factives are

    • (it) be odd that
    • be sorry/proud/indifferent/glad/sad that
    • know that, and
    • regret that.
  • Implicative verbs

    In John managed/didn't manage to open the door, both managed/didn't manage to trigger the presupposition "tried to," as in "John tried to open the door."

    Other implicative verbs are

    • avoided (X-ing), which presupposes "was expected to"
    • forgot to, which presupposes "ought to have"
    • happened to, which presupposes "didn’t plan/intend to," and
    • intended to.
  • Change of state verbs

    In Kissinger continued/didn’t continue to rule the world, both continued/didn’t continue to trigger the presupposition "had been," as in "Kissinger had been ruling the world."

    Other change of state verbs are

    • arrive
    • begin
    • come
    • enter
    • go
    • leave
    • stop, and
    • take (X from Y), which presupposes "X was at/in/with Y."
  • Expressions of repetition

    In Carter returned/didn’t return to power, both returned/didn’t return trigger the presupposition "Carter held power before."

    Other such expressions are

    • again
    • another time
    • anymore
    • come back
    • repeat, and
    • restore.
  • Expressions of temporal relations

    In while Chomsky was revolutionizing linguistics, the rest of social science was/wasn’t asleep, the clause introduced by while triggers the presupposition "Chomsky was revolutionizing linguistics."

    Other such conjunctions triggering presuppositions are

    • after
    • as
    • before
    • during
    • since, and
    • whenever.
  • Cleft sentences

    • In it was/wasn’t Henry that kissed Rosie, the cleft structure triggers the presupposition "someone kissed Rosie."
    • The pseudocleft structure in what John lost was his wallet triggers the presupposition "John lost something."
  • Stressed constituents

    In John did/didn’t compete in the OLYMPICS, the stressed constituent triggers the presupposition "John did compete somewhere."

  • Returned actions

    In Adolph called Marianne a Valkyrie, and she complimented him back/in return, too, both back/in return, too trigger the presupposition "to call Marianne a Valkyrie is to compliment her."

  • Comparisons

    In Carol is/isn’t a better linguist than Barbara, the comparison triggers the presupposition "Barbara is a linguist."

  • Counterfactual conditions

    In if the notice had only said ‘mine-field’ in English as well as Welsh, we would/would never have lost poor Llewellyn, the form of the condition triggers the presupposition "The notice didn’t say mine-field in English."

  • Questions

    • Questions presenting alternatives tend to trigger a presupposition of the truth of one of the alternatives. The utterance is Newcastle in England or in Australia? triggers the presupposition "Newcastle is either in England or in Australia."
    • Questions containing interrogative pro-forms tend to trigger a corresponding presupposition containing an indefinite pro-form. The utterance who is the professor of linguistics at MIT? triggers the presupposition "someone is the professor of linguistics at MIT."

Compiled by Karttunen No date and presented by Levinson 1983 181–184


Levinson 1983 181–184


Karttunen No date

Context for this page:

Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 5.0 published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 2003. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 5 January 2004

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