I was talking to a friend and when I told her I was watching TWD, she asked me about the show. I told her the premise of the show is that people die and turn into zombies. She immediately wrote "premise?". I thought I might have used the wrong word and it made me feel embarrassed. So I quickly checked for it's meaning on Google.

Here's what showed up

  1. A previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.

  2. Base an argument, theory, or undertaking on.

I still feel like I used the word correctly. Can someone please tell me if I was wrong?

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    The premise of the book is [blah blah] - estimated 17,100 hits in Google Books. Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 14:13
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    Not at all. I just searched for book because I couldn't decide whether to choose movie or film. But The premise of the film is [blah blah] gets 4,670 hits. No disrespect, but this kind of question really belongs on our sister site English Language Learners Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 15:04
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    Your friend simply might not have known what "premise" means. Although it's a common word, someone who's not very interested in writing (books, film, etc) might reasonably be unfamiliar with it.
    – user91988
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 18:15
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    Is your friend a native English speaker? I think it's very likely that she simply didn't know the word.
    – Ivo
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 9:37
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    @only_pro That's possible, especially since I noticed while researching an answer that many online dictionary definitions of "premise" don't actually include the sense used here (dramatic premise), and focus on logical premises or premises in the sense of land and buildings. If she didn't recognise this use of the word and looked it up in online dictionaries, she'd have been understandably confused. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 9:59

8 Answers 8


Your use of the word premise is entirely correct:

an idea or theory on which a statement or action is based:

  • [ + that ] They had started with the premise that all men are created equal.
  • The research project is based on the premise stated earlier.
  • We should start from the premise that circumstances might change.
  • The conclusions you have drawn are based on a false premise.
  • We should work on the premise that this plan will be successful.
  • Could you explain the basic premise of your argument? Your reasoning is based on a misguided premise.

As you can see from the examples, the use of "premise" is not limited to books, stories, movies, etc., however in filmmaking

The premise of a film or screenplay is the initial state of affairs that drives the plot.

Most premises can be expressed very simply, and many films can be identified simply from a short sentence describing the premise.

  • For example: A lonely boy is befriended by an alien;
  • A small town is terrorized by a shark;
  • A small boy sees dead people.

In my opinion, the filmmaking definition of premise boils down to the same thing

An assertion or proposition which forms the basis for a work or theory.

  • ‘the fundamental premise of the report’


Your sentence is grammatically sound. I have absolutely no doubts about that, and I reaffirm my answer.

I haven't watched TWD, so I honestly don't know if the premise that "people die and turn into zombies" is, in fact, the premise of TWD, as the ensuing debate in the comments alleges it isn't.

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    @Anonymous These quoted definitions do also illustrate why the usage of the word feels a bit "off" - not wrong exactly, but probably not quite what you intend. "People die and turn into zombies" is the premise of the zombie genre - the fundamental idea from which everything else follows. If you say it's the premise of this show - the fundamental idea from which this specific plot follows - it sounds like a biting criticism (pun intended). You are implying that TWD and every other work of zombie fiction all share the same premise, implying the genre is formulaic and lacking creativity. Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 19:47
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    @user568458 The premise can have different levels of detail. A very general premise is indeed common to much of the genre. You can have a more detailed premise that distinguishes this show.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 23:51
  • Grammatical soundness is not the same as correct usage. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a grammatically sound sentence, but is semantically nonsensical.
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 20:37

The premise of a film or screenplay is the initial state of affairs that drives the plot.

A "premise", per the definition, is foundational to the plot. There's several problems with proposing that your suggestion is the actual premise to TWD.

It does a poor job of describing -this- story

Your suggestion can be re-written, accurately, as "the premise is that the story is set in this genre". I.e., your suggestion equally describes Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, 28 days later, TWD, and literally every other story within the larger Zombie-setting. As such, it's not very meaningful to describe the premise in this way.

This story doesn't require your premise to work.

Foundational elements of stories often vary independently of the setting. Romeo and Juliet could be told equally well in Verona, Italy, concerning nobleman and ladies as it can in the Bronx, concerning street gangs as it can with Garden-Gnomes. The premise of Romeo and Juliet persists throughout those versions of the classic tale.

Similarly, TWD's premise has very little to do with "zombies", if anything at all.


It's my opinion that TWD's premise is "Man struggles to adapt to post-apocalyptic environment".

  • I gave you a down vote for two reasons--first this isn't an answer to the language question, the OP did use the word correctly even if you disagree that it is the actual premise of the show, it is at least a reasonable premise. And also because your definition of premise isn't consistent, since you say it can't be too broad, and then you conclude that the premise is very broad indeed. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 16:40
  • First, OP made a statement, and it confused his conversational partner. OP has come here and asked us if it is a mistake on OP's part in regards to the use of "premise" or not. And the fact of the matter is, it is a mistake on OP's part in regards to the use of "premise". The distinction between HOW OP misused the word "premise"(picked the wrong word or misidentified which thing was indeed the premise) is simply not salient here.
    – godskook
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:29
  • Second, any description can result in an infinite number of plots. My suggested premise, however, will identify reasonably similar plots, similar to my example of Romeo and Juliet and the various adaptions thereof. Whereas OP's pick identifies very -different- plots. World War Z doesn't share premise or plot with TWD, but it would according to OP.
    – godskook
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:35
  • Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and 28 days later are also all stories about people struggling to adapt to a post-apocalyptic environment... The only variation there is that SotD eventually becomes post post apocalyptic. You would also be covering the whole Fallout series, anything described as "last man on Earth", etc., etc. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:44

It's valid usage, but it implies you think the show is generic

A premise is what forms the basis of a theory or a plot


The premise is the core idea of a work of fiction - the essence from which everything else follows.

It's a strong word. You can say that the premise of The Walking Dead is that people die and come back as zombies, and it would not be incorrect usage of the word - but it implies criticism if you say the premise is something so thin and generic that it is true of any work of zombie fiction.

"The premise is that people die and come back as zombies" is something a critic might say in a scathing review accusing The Walking Dead of being just another formulaic zombie show.

This is almost certainly why your friend questioned your use of the word. It was probably clear from context that you believe there is more to the show than some people dying then coming back as zombies.

Some real usage examples

Let's compare that to some typical usage of the word in this context:

The premise is that a dangerous criminal has threatened carnage at the Miss United States Pageant


The movie's premise is that guys like this might actually benefit from a good fight, and that bullying should be confronted by any means


The film's premise is that the three women spend a lot of time spying on others, but they are unable to see problems closer to home


You see how the film critics quoted have not simply described a detail of the situation of the film. They are saying something about the fundamental idea of the work, while communicating something deeper about what the experience of the story is like: tension and drama, a moral twist, an ironic contrast.

A premise can be very short, but if someone describes a premise in a way that sounds generic or bland, that will reflect their view of the work itself:

There is no dramatic tension to this film - the entire premise is already summarised in the title [Miracles From Heaven]


Some examples of what is missing

I've not seen the show, but I imagine a better premise might be:

  • the struggle to survive when the dead return as zombies.

This communicates an idea of what drives the plot (characters motivated by survival, constant daily struggles) and what the experience of the show is like (tension, intensity, threat, some level of realism and grit), as well as the mechanics of the situation (the zombies part).

But maybe I've misread the publicity and the premise is actually:

  • a grave digger has to dramatically change his business when the dead return as zombies, with hilarious consequences
  • a couple's relationship is shaken when the dead return as zombies, and an old flame makes an unexpected return
  • an underperforming sports team have a chance to change their fortune when the dead return as zombies

The premises of these shows are very different, but "the dead return as zombies" is true of all of them.

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    I don't feel that criticism is necessarily implied by an overly vague description of a premise.
    – Colm
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 13:41
  • I never said that vagueness implies criticism: I said that a thin and generic premise implies the speaker sees little of interest in the work. A detailed but dull premise would imply a dull work: "Three generations of a Vermont family watch eight different types of paint dry" is specific, but it doesn't sound like the summariser has found much interest or engagement. "A family's tensions and secrets spill over during home redecoration" is more vague, but implies the summariser found some drama and engagement. Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:31

That is more a premise than the premise. The premise of the the show, as swbarnes2 said, is that "the world has been overrun by zombies, collapsing civilization". That people die and turn into zombies is part of that, but not the central issue. For instance, on the show iZombie, it's true that "people die and become zombies" (for some definition of "die" and "zombies"), but it's a much different show. The Walking Dead isn't a show about dying and turning into a zombie, any more than it's a show about people who keep pet tigers. It's a show about living in a world where you constantly have to decide what you're willing to do to survive. It's about these three questions: "How many walkers have you killed? How many humans have you killed? Why?"


Premise is technically correct usage, but it glosses over a lot.

It might be truer to say that "One of the conceits of the show 'The Walking Dead' is that people turn into zombies when they die"

Conceit in this case used similarly to Concept. It's part of the underlying rules of the show, and it drives some elements of the plot. But the show isn't just about people dying and turning into zombies.


It may be that she prefers the spelling "Premiss" in this context. After all, "Premise" may refer a single unit of accommodation or commercial activity, though it is true that "Premises" works just as well in this context. I believe this ambiguity and/or dichotomy has been discussed on StackExchange in another context.

  • Welcome to ELU. This seems a plausible answer but could you add any references to back it up? I’ve just looked up premiss and Collins simply says it’s a variant of premise. There are probably better references that detail the difference, though.
    – Pam
    Commented Sep 23, 2018 at 19:28
  • There is a brief discussion regarding the difference between Premise and Premiss in another thread on Stack. I'm sorry I don't know how to do a cross-reference. There is a better citation there. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 15:00
  • you can just paste a link. Put the highlighted words in square brackets and the link in normal brackets right next to it and it'll come up as a hyper link.
    – Pam
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:25
  • OK I'll try that now. How's this? ...Seems to work Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 17:17

I would say, no, you aren't using the word quite right. The premise of the show is that the world has been overrun by zombies, collapsing civilization. That more are being created through natural death, instead of by zombie bite is a detail of world building, but not the premise of the show.

If there was another show, set 100 years later, where civilization was restored, and the show was about the people who monitor the population, to swiftly deal with people who unexpectedly die and come back as zombies...there, the premise would be that people who die come back as zombies.

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    This is a differing opinion on what the premise is. OP still used the word correctly.
    – user91988
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 18:16
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    But a "premise" is not a small worldbuilding detail, which is how the OP was using it. It's the fundamental thing that drives the plot. The shows are about people dealing with the collapse of civilization, not people who are extra careful about dealing with corpses.
    – swbarnes2
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 18:32
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    Some comments on this answer have been deleted. Remember to stay respectful and kind. Best to avoid sarcasm, jokes, subtle (or not-so-subtle) putdowns or unfriendly language, bigotry, or harassment. If a situation makes it hard to act kindly, stop posting. Instead, flag harmful behavior to alert moderators. More information: Expected Behavior, Code of Conduct.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 21:17
  • You are mixing up premise, plot, and story... bridgetostory.com/classes/lessons/lesson/47/premise-vs.-plot Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:14

This is a common and well understood use of the noun "premise" If it conforms to the original use of the word, I do not know. If it doesn't it would be an example of the expansion of the living, growing wonderful language of Shakespeare.

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