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One presupposition trigger is the definite article. Can an indefinite article trigger a presupposition?

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  • 3
    Do you believe in a god? Wait! Is there more than one?
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 5, 2016 at 0:20
  • @Close voter What about this question is unclear?
    – lemontree
    Dec 5, 2016 at 8:00
  • 1
    what on earth is a "presupposition trigger"?
    – mobileink
    Dec 5, 2016 at 21:25
  • @mobileink A presupposition trigger is a lexical item or a construction that triggers a presupposition. This is the most common terminology a pragmaticist could use in this context. I really don't see what would be unclear about this question if you are a little familiar with presupposition theory (and if not, you just don't have to answer it).
    – lemontree
    Dec 6, 2016 at 9:18
  • The definite article presupposes that there is a unique item under consideration. An indefinite article presupposes that there is at least one.
    – Mitch
    Dec 8, 2016 at 17:18

2 Answers 2

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While the definite article is assumed to exhibit both an existence and a uniqueness presupposition, combining to an "exactly one" presupposition:

I saw the bear yesterday
→ There is a bear
→ There is not more than one bear
→ = There is exactly one bear (in this situation, e.g. in a town)

this is generally not assumed for the indefinite article:

I saw a bear yesterday
→ There is a bear and not more than one.


There are several devices to test whether a presupposition holds:

  1. Negation test: If you negate the statement, the presupposition stays:

    I didn't see the bear yesterday.
    → There is a bear and not more than one.

    vs.

    I didn't see a bear yesterday.
    → There is a bear and not more than one.

  2. "Hey wait a minute" test: If you deny the truth of a presupposition, you must do so by saying something like "Hey, wait a minute", because straightforwardly replying with "No, this is not true" would only negate the truth of the embedding statement:

    I saw the bear yesterday.
    # No, this is not true. (This is only denying that you saw the bear)
    ✓ Hey wait a minute! What bear? There isn't a bear around here.
    ✓ Hey wait a minute! "The" bear? There is more than one, which one do you mean?

    vs

    I saw a bear yesterday.
    ✓ No, this is not true. (You are telling stories, there are no bears around here.)

  3. Question test: If you turn the statement into a question, the presupposition stays.

    Did you see the bear on your trip?
    → There is a bear and not more than one.

    vs.

    Did you see a bear on your trip?
    → There is a bear and not more than one.

All of these tests suggest that the indefinite article doesn't have an existence or uniqueness presupposition.


However, the example from Greg Lee's comment seems to provide some counter evidence:

Do you pray to a god?
# No. (weird to say if you want to deny that there is more than one and you only pray to the god)
✓ Hey wait a minute! There is not more than one god. I only pray to the God.

(Please keep in mind that this is example answers by fictional characters and certainly not what I believe ;) )

This, however, behaves differently than the definite article (or proper names in the case of an article-less, capitalized "God"):

Do you pray to a god?
✓ No. Because I don't believe that there is one.

vs.

Do you pray to (the) God?
# No. (unlikely to say if you don't even believe in God, because this sounds like you assume there is one but just don't pray to him)


So one could maybe say that while the definite article comes with an existence and a uniqueness presupposition, the indefinite article has something like a non-uniqueness presupposition.
This is now a little weird because "more than one" would automatically imply existence (which we don't want as a presupposition, otherwise the denial in the last-but-one example sentence would fail), so maybe one could word it to say that the indefinite article presupposes the possibility of there being more than one:

✓ a bear
✓ a police officer
# a current president of the US
# a god (if you believe in a monotheistic religion)

The use of the indefinite article now doesn't come with an existence presupposition:

Did you see a bear?
→ There is a bear

Do you pray to a god?
→ There is a god

and it doesn't come with the necessity of there being more than one either:

Did you see a bear?
→ There is more than one bear

Do you pray to a god?
→ There is more than one god

but it does come with a presupposition of the possibility of there being more than one:

Did you see a bear?
→ It is possible that there are several bears strolling around

# Are you content with a current US president?
→ It is possible that there are several current US presidents

which makes sense assuming that "a" picks a subset out of a larger set (strictly semantically, "I saw a bear" is also true if you saw several bears, so it's a (possibly singleton) subset rather than an individual, as would be the case with the use of "the" which directly picks out a single individual), so there should be a set with more than one member to pick from. If you didn't assume the possibility of there being more than one, you would have been more informative by straight away saying "the", thereby stating that there is only one anyway, so the mere use of "a" rather than "the" suggests that in some contexts, it is possible that there are several individuals in your set (although it might be that in one or the other context, there is only one member involved), which I think you could dub a lexically triggered presupposition.
Such a weak presupposition (the possibility of there being more than one) would explain the example given by Greg Lee, but at the same time not exhibit the unwanted effect of an existence presupposition.

This is my analysis at least; feel free to provide counter-evidence.

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  • Thanks @lemontree and Greg Lee. I suppose that I should have should have asked a the question like this: Are there any circumstances in which an indefinite article can hold a presupposition?
    – melodi
    Dec 5, 2016 at 11:22
  • @melodi Just edit your question accordingly if you think this makes it clearer. Did my answer address your question?
    – lemontree
    Dec 5, 2016 at 11:23
  • Thanks @lemontree and Greg Lee. I suppose that I should have should have asked a the question like this: Are there any circumstances in which an indefinite article can hold a presupposition? Does the following NP here " a UN Security Council vote on a Western-sponsored resolution threatening Syria with tougher sanctions was postponed until Thursday " not presuppose that there is such a particular vote and a particular resolution - even though it could be one of many - because it is being postponed?
    – melodi
    Dec 5, 2016 at 11:32
  • @melodi No, I would say this is not a presupposition, because e.g. if you negate the statement, the presupposition no longer holds ("It is not true that a vote was being postponed" -> this no longer means that there must be such a vote, in fact there not being any vote might be the reason why nothing was postponed, vs. "It is not true that the vote was being postponed" -> this still has the presupposition of there actually being such a vote). Try it out with the several tests I listed.
    – lemontree
    Dec 5, 2016 at 11:35
  • @melodi If you want to know about a specific presupposition, namely the existence presupposition, you should include that in your question, because "a presupposition" can also be other things, like uniquness or non-uniqueness presupposition (as explained above).
    – lemontree
    Dec 5, 2016 at 11:47
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I think perhaps with an qualifying adjective.

"Are you a good mother?" Presupposes that the referent of "you" is, in fact, a mother.

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  • I thought about that, too. In classical truth-conditional semantics, a construction of the Form x is a Adj Noun are usually treated as Adj(x) ∧ Noun(x), where negation would no longer entail the truth of the noun predicate (¬ (Good(x) ∧ Mother(x))Mother(x)), so the x is a mother would not be a presupposition of the sentence, but in my intuition, it sounds like it is. Possibly it's because in terms of information structure, with good being in focus, mother is more in the background/topic which tend to be more presupposition like.
    – lemontree
    Dec 6, 2016 at 10:29

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