Category mistakes by Ofra Magidor

By Ofra Magidor

Type error are sentences resembling 'Green rules sleep furiously' or 'Saturday is in bed'. They strike us as hugely infelicitous however it is difficult to give an explanation for accurately why this can be so. Ofra Magidor explores 4 methods to type blunders in philosophy of language and linguistics, and develops and defends an unique, presuppositional account.


type errors are sentences resembling 'Green rules sleep furiously' or 'Saturday is in bed'. They strike us as hugely infelicitous however it is tough to give an explanation for accurately why this is often so. Ofra Magidor Read more...

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So, for example, ‘The dog frightens the cat’ and ‘The dog frightens the elephant’ come out as syntactically permissible, but not ‘The dog frightens sincerity’. 1 of the Aspects), Chomsky reopens the question of whether category mistakes should be treated as semantic or syntactic. His discussion is somewhat tentative, but Chomsky suggests at least one compelling argument in favour of the syntactic approach. The core of the argument is this. Chomsky acknowledges that category mistakes are at best a borderline case of syntactically ill-formed sentences, but he argues that the syntactic machinery that he uses in order to address the phenomena (namely, selectional features) is independently motivated.

51 For a classic exchange between interpretative semanticists and generative semanticists, one in which category mistakes play a central role, see Katz (1970) and the response of McCawley (1971). For an excellent extensive history of the debate between these two camps see Harris (1993). 52 This position is sometimes explicitly endorsed. See for example McCawley’s claim that what makes ‘Robert own’s John’s after image’ odd is that “an afterimage is something that it makes no sense to speak of someone’s owning”.

But the crucial point is that the claims on which I rely are, by and large, widely accepted, and in particular should seem equally plausible (at least prima facie) to proponents of the meaninglessness view. Of course, if my arguments are successful, proponents of the view might ultimately choose to reject some of these assumptions rather than 7 Note that in addition to the view that category mistakes are in fact meaningless (in English, or other familiar natural languages), there is a slightly weaker version of the meaninglessness view, one which maintains that there are possible languages in which category mistakes are meaningless (see McDaniel (MS) for an endorsement of this weaker claim).

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