Presupposition involves presenting a content as already known to the recipient. In this sense, it doesn’t make the content itself implicit, but rather the responsibility of the sender, who presents that content not as their opinion, but as something already shared. If the recipient is not very attentive, they fall for it and get the impression of always having thought that thing. If, instead, the sender were to present the same information as their explicit assertion, the recipient would more likely subject it to a quick critical review and be much more capable of rejecting it.

A famous example (dating back to the time of Bertrand Russell and Peter Frederick Strawson) of expressions that presuppose are the so-called “definite descriptions,” that is, nouns with the definite article. These expressions take for granted the existence of their referent. Using the definite article implies that the recipient already knows, and can identify, the thing designated: I met the boy who is dating your daughter would be inappropriate if the listener does not know that their daughter is dating a boy. In short, using the definite article is equivalent to presenting that information as already possessed by the recipient, and not introduced by the sender. In technical terms, it is precisely said that the definite article presupposes the existence of the thing designated by the noun. To present a content as not already known to the recipient, that is, as not presupposed, the indefinite article is used instead: I met a boy who is dating your daughter.

So we can say the sun, the earth, the pope, the government, or the budget with the definite article because the people we are talking to already know those referents; while we cannot say: Yesterday I bought the shelf from the railway worker if our interlocutor does not know what we are talking about; and we should rather say: Yesterday I bought a shelf from a railway worker, presenting those referents as new and without presupposing their existence.

But persuasive communication exploits this property of the definite article to convey the impression that certain information is well-known and widely acknowledged, when in fact, upon closer examination, it would prove to be false.

“The freshness of Jocca  has only 7% fat.”

“The new flavor has less fat.”

The sins of gluttony that don’t make you gain weight.”

For example, the advertisement for Jocca, seemingly discussing its being low-fat, actually takes for granted the existence of something called “The freshness of Jocca”. The recipient doesn’t even realize they’re ipso facto accepting, without questioning, a world where the freshness of Jocca exists and is well-known to all. If, instead, they were explicitly told: “Jocca conveys a sensation of freshness,” they would be prompted to critically evaluate this information: they would compare it with real cheeses and draw their own conclusions about Jocca. This critical evaluation is bypassed by presenting as presupposed — by no coincidence — the content that matters most in choosing a low-fat cheese: the idea that it’s enjoyable. The same applies to “the new flavor” and “the sins of gluttony” in the other two advertisements shown here; accomplice is also the vagueness of these expressions, which makes them sound positive but makes it very difficult to recognize them as false or exaggerated.

More generally, presuppositions are often used to inform, in a cursory manner, of new contents: open the door presupposes that the door is currently closed. That is, by saying it, I pretend not to be the one informing my interlocutor that it is closed, as if he already knew. In theory, if he doesn’t know, I should first tell him: The door is closed now, and then I could say: Open it. But it is simpler to presuppose that he knows it, and indirectly inform him of this through the implicit content in the verb with which I tell him to open it. Similarly, by saying: You know, your wife stopped seeing the baker, I presuppose that they were seeing each other before. That is, I suggest that my interlocutor already knows, and that it is not me who is informing him. In short, I do not take responsibility for that opinion, but rather put it on him. This type of implicitness is particularly suitable in persuasive contexts because it allows acceptance of contents that would otherwise be rejected. An advertisement like Let Philips open your eyes! presupposes a content that, if asserted directly, would be found false and offensive: “You are living with your eyes closed!”

“Let Philips open your eyes – New Matchline “Panorama” – The widest screen television.”

“Don’t look at the world through others’ eyes. Open yours.”

Let’s leave it to you to discover the same mechanism in the other two advertisements reproduced here, or to read about it on this other page: Implicit persuasion.

Political communication is rife with presuppositions, often of contents not only unknown to recipients but also debatable or even false. We present the following brief excerpts from political speeches, indicating the author in parentheses and providing (in bold type) an explicit explanation of the content insinuated as presupposition, which in most cases, if asserted directly, would sound at least exaggerated:

  • “To make Europe human again and bring it back to its values, to its origins.” (Renzi) – Europe is not human, and it has lost its values.
  • “Because freeing ourselves from that criminal cage that is the euro means going back to work, but also to regain dignity, to plan the future with the family, to have the money to send the children to daycare, and to recover our smiles.” (Salvini) – The euro is a ‘criminal cage,’ we have lost our jobs, our dignity, we no longer plan the future with our family, we don’t have the money for daycare, we have lost our smiles.
  • “Let’s use that money in Africa, to help those countries grow, instead of deceiving millions of desperate people that there is a future in Italy that no longer exists.” (Salvini) – Millions of desperate people are being deceived. There is no future in Italy.
  • “It is a relationship that has been disturbed by recent scandals, caused by some old political hacks, by the discredit produced by bad politics, by the climate of intimidation that has arisen towards the taxpayer, and above all by the subversion of the will of the voters.” (Berlusconi) – These are well-known and indisputable facts, whose existence can be taken for granted: my opponents are old political hacks causing scandals, theirs is bad politics, they act intimidatingly towards the taxpayer, and they subvert the will of the voters.
  • “For us liberals, you know well, the State must serve the citizens; for a few others, Left and not only Left, the opposite applies.” (Berlusconi) – Only ‘we’ are the liberals, meaning those who stand with me.
  • “Italy is stronger than the fears that run through it. And Italy is able to influence the path opening up in Europe decisively.” (Renzi) – Italy is filled with fears. With my ‘arrival,’ a new ‘path’ opens up in Europe.
  • “In between, there is ample room for possible change. The idea of ​​bringing Europe back to being the place of hope for citizens and families, for workers, and for businesses. This is our dream.” (Renzi) – Change is desirable. Europe is currently not a place of hope for anyone. What drives me and my followers is nothing short of a dream.
  • “The others chatter, we continue to work for the great change.” (Berlusconi) – We were ALREADY working for ‘the great change’.
  • “It is unacceptable that Italy is one of the very few Western countries where the highest office of the State is decided, in the closed confines of some dark and smoky room, by three or four party leaders, behind the backs of the voters.” (Berlusconi) – The President of the Republic is decided by some party leaders in a dark and smoky room and behind the backs of the voters.