Common Ground (definition)


“mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions” (Clark & Brennan, 1991)

“Presuppositions are what is taken by the speaker to be the common ground of the participants in the conversation, what is treated as their common knowledge or mutual knowledge” (Stalnaker, 1978: 321)

Whenever something is said in a conversation, there is ‘common ground’ between the interlocutors which allows them to interpret each others assertions. Common ground includes general knowledge such as the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun and the sky is blue. But it also includes more specific knowledge and beliefs that may have been established between the interlocutors due to their past activity together and the current state of the conversation.

Also known as

presupposition pool


In the following example, the interviewer (AN) asks a question to the interviewee (SB). In order to interpret this question fully, AN assumes that SB knows who the ‘defence secretary’ is and who ‘Corbyn’ is. He also assumes that SB knows the defence secretary said something about Corbyn recently. This mutual knowledge is the common ground. Without common ground, conversations would be much harder to hold.

01 AN: .. defence secretary says
02     mister Corbyn has quote
03     betrayed his country
04     in what way
05 SB: well the defence secretary’s chosen his own words
06     I mean the point for me about this debacle

Sometimes interviewers can push common ground to the limits to unsettle a politician. In the following example, the interviewer (JP) asks about ‘the biggest question of our times in politics’ but doesn’t state what that is. He assumes the intervewee (TM) should know what he is talking about thus putting her on the spot.

01 JP: Theresa May (.)
02     when did you realise
03     that you’d got the wrong answer (.)
04     to the biggest question of our times in politics
05        (2.2) ((May coughs & smiles))
06 TM: well I’m tempted to ask you Jeremy what you (.) think
07     d’you mean (.) ((hand gesture))
08     you’re talking about Brexit?
09 JP: (0.3) well of course ((dismissive facial expression))
10 TM: right


Clark, HH. & Brennan, SE. (1991) Grounding in communication. In Lauren Resnick, Levine B., M. John, Stephanie Teasley & D. (eds.), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. American Psychological Association. pp. 13–1991

Stalnaker, RC., (1978) Assertion. In: Peter Cole, ed., Syntax and semantics, volume 9: Pragmatics, 315-332. New York: Academic Press.

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