Site hosted by Build your free website today!



You already have some of the tools you need for using language skillfully to improve relationships, build social networks, and defuse hostility. Think about the three principles we talked about early in this course: Miller's Law, the Satir modes, and the sensory modes. These can fit well into a plan to improve your use of language in communicating. Add to this the listening skills you're working on, and you have the start of a nice package of communication skills.


Now let's get more specific about language itself. Basic to understanding the techniques we're getting ready to learn is the concept of presupposition. Presupposition is any meaning that native speakers of a language know is part of the meaning of a sequence of words, even if it isn't present on the surface. Let's look at an example, and it gets clearer. Think about what this sentence says:

Even Bill could get an A in that course.

Now you know how this is said, don't you? Emphasis on Bill and that, right? Like this:

Even Bill could get an A in that course.

What does this sentence mean? Well, I think it's clear that Bill isn't all that smart and that this is probably an easy course. Right? So what this sentence really means is:

Even Bill, who isn't all that smart, could get an A in that course, which is really easy.

But most of this meaning isn't there in the words at all, is it? That's what presupposition is--all the meaning hidden in the sentence which the sentence doesn't really say in so many words. But any native speaker of English knows that this meaning is in there.

Now it's important to know about presupposition for two reasons. One is that using presupposition is a powerful way to say things you don't want to come right out and say. You can use it effectively when you are trying to persuade someone or when you are trying to make a point. Because the meaning is hidden, people tend not to examine it carefully, but just accept it as true. The other reason it is good to understand presupposition is that people will use it in their communications to you. It's helpful to be able to spot it and examine it carefully before you accept it as true. I wouldn't encourage unethical use of such a technique, say, to hide something untrue in a statement in the hope that people will simply accept it as true without questioning it. And the fact that some people will use it unethically is why you want to get good at spotting it. But it's perfectly all right to use presupposition to make your speech more persuasive, as long as the meaning you're embedding in a sentence isn't untrue in the first place.

Now let's look at some ways to accomplish presupposition. There are many means available, but a few are especially useful.


The rules of English--the ones everyone knows, but no one knows they know--say that a declarative sentence (one that's not a question) is a claim. Theoretically any claim is open to question or challenge. It's probably true that we're not inclined to challenge every claim, but it could happen. For example, if you say "I'm going downtown now," probably no one will say, "You are not!" This is a claim that doesn't seem worth challenging. On the other hand if you're fourteen and have just gotten in some trouble with your mom, and then make the same claim, she may well say, "No, you're not!" So theoretically, even such a simple claim is open to challenge.

The thing is, we need to determine just where in the sentence the claim is hidden. Here, the rules of English say that the claim is in the sentence's predicate. Remember subjects and predicates? You don't need to have all the details they gave you in junior high, but the important part is that the predicate is the part of the sentence that contains the verb--the action. The subject is the doer of the action. So in the sentence, "I'm going downtown now," the subject is I and the predicate is "am going to town now."

Here's the important part: if the predicate is the claim which is open to challenge, the subject is the part of the sentence which is presupposed to be true. Now there's not much to argue with in I. But take a look at these sentences:

Bob is cruel to animals.

Subject: Bob. Presupposed to be true. That is, Bob is presupposed to exist. The rules of English also say that anything we name is presupposed to exist. Think about it. This sentence doesn't make any sense in English:

Bob does not exist.

If we can name and refer to Bob, surely he does exist; so this sentence is nonsensical. And we can make the presupposition stronger by describing Bob. Like this:

My older brother Bob, who has a beard and blue eyes, does not exist.

Really dumb sentence, isn't it? If you can describe Bob this thoroughly, then he just has to exist. You couldn't make up an older brother and describe him if you don't have one, can you? Of course you can, but in general a sentence like this doesn't open any of that to challenge. It presupposes that Bob indeed does exist and is older than you and has a beard and blue eyes. That's not the claim.

The claim is in the predicate. Back to our original sentence:

Bob is cruel to animals.

Since the subject, Bob, is presupposed to exist, then that isn't the claim; so the claim must be in the rest of the sentence--the predicate. Here's the predicate: is cruel to animals. What we've done here is lay out a claim that Bob abuses animals, and that claim needs defending. It would be very easy for someone to say, "Bob is NOT cruel to animals!" And then you'd have to defend this statement.

Let's say you don't want to have to spend time arguing about this claim. Let's restate the sentence, hiding our claim about Bob in the subject, where it will be presupposed to be true.

Bob's cruelty to animals is very distressing to me.

What's different here? Doesn't seem like much, but a lot has changed. Now the claim that Bob is cruel to animals has disappeared--that is, it's still there, but it's embedded in the subject, where it's no longer subject to challenge. The sentence's claim is now simply that this cruelty distresses me, not something most people will think is worth challenging.

This is nominalization. The Latin word nomina means name, and in English we use derivatives of that word to refer to objects, people, and places--nouns--and to the subjects of sentences--nominal case. Nominalization means to make something into a noun. And that's just what we did with our claim about Bob's cruelty. We turned it into a fact without ever having to defend the claim.

If we want to strengthen the presupposition, we can do just as we did with our claim about my brother Bob. We elaborate on it and describe it. Look at this:

Bob's wanton and excessive cruelty to animals is distressing to me.

Now the cruelty is not just a fact, it's wanton and excessive--a described fact. Harder and harder to challenge. And once this sort of claim goes unchallenged, it becomes even more firmly established as a fact. Happens all the time in political campaigns.

If you're running for governor and you want to discredit your opponent, you could try to make this sort of claim:

My opponent has engaged in corruption in office.

The subject--presupposed to exist--is my opponent. No thrill here. We've all seen him on TV; of course he exists! But the claim, that he has engaged in corruption in office, will certainly be challenged. If I wanted to convey the same claim without having to defend it, I might instead say:

The corruption of my opponent's time in office will stop when I am elected.

Now the same claim--the one about the corruption--has become an established fact; it's been nominalized. The claim is now that I won't be corrupt if you elect me; this is a claim I'd much rather deal with, wouldn't you? Listen to political speech; this sort of thing goes on all the time. The fact that you haven't noticed it before speaks to the power of presupposition; you weren't supposed to notice.

Here's another handy use of nominalization. How many of you would be comfortable saying to your (or anyone's) boss:

You are truly a great leader.

Nauseating, isn't it? Even if it happens to be true. This is just not the sort of thing you can even contemplate saying. But look what happens when you nominalize the same claim:

The working relationships in this department are evidence of your great leadership.

Still sucking up, I know, but a lot easier to say. Why? Because we've nominalized the nauseating claim--this time into a part of the predicate that isn't really open to challenge. The predicate--the challenge-able part--is that the relationships are evidence; what they're evidence of is presupposed to be true, just as the subject of a sentence is. If someone was inclined to argue with you, they might argue that the relationships have nothing to do with the boss's great leadership; but note that the great leadership is still there and still true.

Don't overlook the usefulness of these strategies as you build your communication skills. Oh no, I've done it to you. Did you spot it? Take a look at the first sentence in this paragraph:

Don't overlook the usefulness of these strategies . . .

The claim here is that you shouldn't overlook the usefulness, but the usefulness itself has been nominalized and had become an established fact. Hardly anyone, reading that sentence, would say, "Oh I don't know; they don't look so useful to me!" Much more effective than:

These strategies are very useful. Don't overlook them.


Factives are predicates with presuppositions embedded in the verb form used. Factive verbs are verbs that, whether stated as positives or negatives, make no difference to the meaning of the embedded presupposition. We need an example:

I knew that Bob was cruel to animals.

The claim is that I knew. Presupposed as true is that Bob is cruel to animals. We can tell that to know is a factive verb because the presupposition stays true even if we use the negative form of the verb:

I didn't know that Bob was cruel to animals.

Do you see? Whether I knew or not is immaterial to the presupposition that Bob is cruel to animals. Any verb that can be stated in either a negative or positive form, while still retaining the presupposed meaning that follows it is a factive verb. And predicates that contain factive verbs are factive predicates. Here's a list of factive verbs:

to know

to be aware

to forget

to realize

to regret

to be fortunate

Try any of these verbs in the sentence about Bob; you'll see that in both their negative and positive forms they leave the presupposition intact. Verbs that don't accomplish this are not factive. Here's an example:

I think Bob is cruel to animals.

I don't think Bob is cruel to animals.

Not the same thing at all, are they? In the first sentence, I'm claiming Bob is cruel to animals. In the second, I'm denying the claim. Presupposition is NOT intact. To think is not a factive verb.


Parents know about use of time words to establish presupposition. The words I'm calling time words here include the following: after, while, before, during, and when. They're used this way:

After you get ready for bed, I'll read you a story.

What's the claim here? That I'll read you a story. Perhaps little Sarah would rather have a song, and if so, she'll probably say so. But what's not in question here? That you get ready for bed. Now because little children don't know the rules of English as well as adults, Sarah might just say, "But I don't want to get ready for bed!" But it's a heck of a lot less likely than it would be if you instead say:

Get ready for bed now.

How about this one?

When your hands are all clean, I'll cut the cake.

As long as you were planning on serving cake anyway, it's a great way to get past the handwashing wars.



Here's another ploy dear to the hearts of parents and salespeople.

Do you want to wear your red mittens or your green mittens?

Does the three-month plan or the six-month plan sound better to you, Mr. Smith?

What you're doing here in both of these examples is to offer the illusion of choice. There's really no choice being offered about the important point--whether to wear mittens, but that little fact often goes unnoticed in the thrill of getting to pick the color. And in the sales pitch, please note there's no room in the choices offered for "No, thank you. I don't care to purchase one today."

And it's a lot harder to say that in response to the choices offered than it would be if the salesperson said:

So, are you interested in our program, Mr. Smith?

Listen to sales calls. The scripts used for them weren't just jotted on the back of a napkin over lunch one day. They are carefully researched and use techniques proven to work; if they didn't work, the companies would choose different techniques that do.


One more thing worth considering about the power of presupposition is the idea that if a little is good, then more must be better. The methods for establishing presupposition listed above are powerful and highly effective if used one at a time. They are even more powerful and effective if used in combination. So consider using nominalization with time words. Or think about using time words with factive predicates. And listen for them in others' conversation.


Action chains are powerful determiners of behavior. An action chain is a patterned sequence of behaviors that, once started, is almost impossible to bail out on. And bailing out or responding in a way that doesn't meet the requirements of the action chain is such a jolt to the participants that it often simply stops the interaction cold.

Think about what happens when someone approaches you with a big smile on his face, holding his hand out, saying, "Hi, I'm Harry Jones." You almost automatically approach, hold your hand out and introduce yourself, don't you? You'd say something like, "Pleased to meet you Harry. I'm Jim (or whatever your name is)." What if you didn't? What if you just stood there looking at Harry with your hands at your sides? He'd falter, look confused, lose the smile. He'd probably hold his hand out for a little bit until he became uncomfortable with the fact that you're clearly not going to reciprocate, then drop it to his side. You've given him a jolt from which he'll have trouble recovering. This wouldn't be a great start to a business meeting, would it?

Here's the interesting part: even if you had no desire whatsoever to meet Harry and knew he was just going to try to sell you something you don't want, you'd still probably approach, smile, tell him you're glad to meet him, and shake hands, wouldn't you? Why? You could just stand there looking at him and say, "Well, Harry, I don't want to meet you." But you don't. That's because the action chain has a script that every adult knows. It requires a particular response whether or not you feel like giving it. Since you know your part in the action chain and since the action chain is so powerful, you go right ahead and act as if Harry's a great guy and you've been dying to meet him. That's how action chains are.

Another action chain in which you've participated countless times is the ritual greeting. It starts like this: you see an acquaintance, Martha, walking toward you down the hall at school, work, or the store. Martha smiles, looks at you, and says,

Hi, how are you today?

What is the correct answer to this question? There are a couple of possibilities. One is simple.

Fine, how are you?

But what is the correct answer if you're not fine at all. Let's say your stomach hurts and you have a headache. Then what is the correct answer?

Fine, how are you?

Right? The correct answer is not, "Well my stomach hurts and I have a headache," is it? No. And here's another answer that's equally as acceptable:

How are you?

You didn't answer the question about your well-being at all. Instead you asked one of your own. But Martha doesn't walk off saying to herself, "Boy, what's wrong with her? Now I'll never know whether she's fine." She goes on just as happily as if you'd said, "Fine." In fact, she probably didn't even answer your question at all; after all she was moving down the hall past you when she spoke the first time.

Why is this? Because, however it sounded, the original question wasn't a request for information. Martha wasn't really asking you to tell her how you are. The message she was conveying is something like this:

I see you and want to make sure I acknowledge your presence because I don't want you to think of me as rude and I don't want you to get angry with me for ignoring you.

There's nothing in this message that includes, "and tell me how you are, really." If Martha is interested in how you really are, she'll ask you later in a different setting. But this is an action chain, a patterned sequence of interactions to which we all know the script. Martha says, "Hi, how are you?" and you respond with, "Fine, how are you?" You don't want to know either, do you?

Think of your options for messing up the script. You might respond by giving Martha a list of what hurts this morning. You might say nothing, perhaps not even look at Martha. You might say, "I have a red car." No one of these answers makes any more sense than any other because none of them fits the script of the action chain. And it's very difficult for those familiar with our culture to break away from the script.

Think what would go through Martha's mind if later that day she finds out that your dear friend died last night. She'd say to herself, "Oh no! To think I asked her how she was! How inconsiderate! I'd better apologize." Now, on the face of things this is a crazy response. Why wouldn't she ask you how you were if someone had just died? Because the manner in which the question was asked wasn't really a question. What Martha's really feeling bad about is that she sent you this message at a time of distress, "Look, I'm asking how you are, but I don't expect an answer to that question. I really just want you to say 'Hi' and keep walking; I have places to go, people to see, and things to do." No wonder she feels bad.

There are thousands of action chains patterned into our culture's social behavior. When you pay the clerk in a store, he says, "Thank you," and you respond with, "Thank you." When you are introduced to someone new and need to make a few minutes conversation, it is usual to bring up some noncontroversial topic, such as, "Nice weather we've been having, don't you think?" This is not a request for information about the other's opinion on the weather; it is an invitation to say a few harmless (and largely meaningless) sentences to fill the time until either of you runs into someone you already know. Both action chains. Listen around you, and you'll hear and see action chains occurring almost at all times.