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Suppressed Premises

Most arguments depend on one or more unstated premises. Sometimes this indicates a weakness in the argument, an oversight by the writer. More often, however, certain premises are left tacit because they are too numerous, or the writer assumes that his audience is aware of the assumptions, or he wants the audience to fill in the premise themselves and therefore be more likely to believe the conclusion.

Conclusion: I knew he did it.

Premise: Only a guilty person would accept immunity from prosecution.

The suppressed premise is that he did, in fact, accept immunity. The speaker assumes that his audience is aware of this fact or at least is willing to believe it, so to state it would be redundant and ponderous. If the unstated premise were false (that is, he did not accept immunity), the argument would not technically be a lie; but it would be very deceptive. The unscrupulous writer may use this ploy if he thinks that he can get away with it. That is, his argument has the intended effect and the false premise, though implicit, is hard to find or is ambiguous. Politicians are not at all above using this tactic.


Politician: A hawk should not be elected President because this country has seen too many wars.

The argument has two tacit premises—one obvious, the other subtle. Clearly, the politician has labeled his opponent a hawk, and he hopes the audience will accept that label. Furthermore, although he does not state it explicitly, the argument rests on the assumption that a hawk is likely to start a war. He hopes the audience will fill in that premise, thereby tainting his opponent as a warmonger.

A common question on the GMAT asks you to find the suppressed premise of an argument. Finding the suppressed premise, or assumption, of an argument can be difficult. However, on the test you have an advantage—the suppressed premise is listed as one of the five answer-choices. To test whether an answer-choice is a suppressed premise, ask yourself whether it would make the argument more plausible. If so, then it is very likely a suppressed premise.

American attitudes tend to be rather insular, but there is much we can learn from other countries. In Japan, for example, workers set aside some time each day to exercise, and many corporations provide elaborate exercise facilities for their employees. Few American corporations have such exercise programs. Studies have shown that the Japanese worker is more productive than the American worker. Thus it must be concluded that the productivity of American workers will lag behind their Japanese counterparts, until mandatory exercise programs are introduced.

The conclusion of the argument is valid if which one of the following is assumed?
  1. Even if exercise programs do not increase productivity, they will improve the American worker’s health.
  2. The productivity of all workers can be increased by exercise.
  3. Exercise is an essential factor in the Japanese worker’s superior productivity.
  4. American workers can adapt to the longer Japanese work week.
  5. American corporations don’t have the funds to build elaborate exercise facilities.
The unstated essence of the argument is that exercise is an integral part of productivity and that Japanese workers are more productive than American workers because they exercise more. The answer is (C).

Steve Cooper, senior sales officer, has trained many top salespeople in this company, including 14 who have become the top salespersons in their regions and 3 who have won the top salesperson award. Although there is an art to selling, Mr. Cooper’s success at training top salespeople shows that the skills required to become a top salesperson can be both taught and learned.

The argument depends on which one of the following assumptions?
  1. Mr. Cooper does not teach the hard-sell method. Nor does he teach the I’ll-be-your-pal method. Instead, he stresses the professional-client relationship.
  2. More than 50% of the people trained by Mr. Cooper went on to become successful salespeople.
  3. One of the successful salespeople who trained under Mr. Cooper was not an accomplished salesperson before learning the Cooper Method.
  4. There is a large and expanding industry dedicated to training salespeople.
  5. There is no one method with which to approach sales; a method that works for one person may not for another person.
If the salespeople trained by Mr. Cooper were successful before studying under him, then clearly the argument would be specious. On the other hand, if none of the salespeople were successful before studying under him, then the argument would be strong. However, the argument does not require this strong of a statement in order to be valid. All it needs is one person who profited from the tutelage of Mr. Cooper. The answer is (C).
Many students have problems with this type of question. They read through the answer-choices and find no significant statements. They may pause at (C) but reject it—thinking that the argument would be deceptive if only one person out of 17 profited from the tutelage of Mr. Cooper. However, the missing premise doesn’t have to make the argument good, just valid.

The petrochemical industry claims that chemical waste dumps pose no threat to people living near them. If this is true, then why do they locate the plants in sparsely populated regions. By not locating the chemical dumps in densely populated areas the petrochemical industry tacitly admits that these chemicals are potentially dangerous to the people living nearby.

Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the author's argument?
  1. Funding through the environmental Super Fund to clean up poorly run waste dumps is reserved for rural areas only.
  2. Until chemical dumps are proven 100% safe, it would be imprudent to locate them were they could potentially do the most harm.
  3. Locating the dumps in sparsely populated areas is less expensive and involves less government red tape.
  4. The potential for chemicals to leach into the water table has in the past been underestimated.
  5. People in cities are more likely to sue the industry if their health is harmed by the dumps.
The suppressed false premise of the argument is that all things being equal there is no reason to prefer locating the sites in sparsely populated areas. To weaken the argument, we need to show it is not true that all things are equal. In other words, there are advantages other than safety in locating the sites in sparsely populated areas. Choice (C) gives two possible advantages—cost and ease. Hence (C) is the answer.

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