Philosophical Studies

, Volume 174, Issue 1, pp 65–78 | Cite as

Category mistakes and figurative language



Category mistakes are sentences such as ‘The number two is blue’ or ‘Green ideas sleep furiously’. Such sentences are highly infelicitous and thus a prominent view claims that they are meaningless. Category mistakes are also highly prevalent in figurative language. That is to say, it is very common for sentences which are used figuratively to be such that, if taken literally, they would constitute category mistakes. (Consider for example the metaphor ‘The poem is pregnant’, the metonymy ‘The White House decided to change its policy’, or a fictional use of ‘The tree was happy’.) In this paper I argue that the view that category mistakes are meaningless is inconsistent with many central and otherwise plausible theories of figurative language. Thus if the meaninglessness view is correct, the theories in question must each be rejected, and conversely, if any of the theories in question is correct, the meaninglessness view must be wrong. The debates concerning the semantics of figurative language and concerning the semantic status of category mistakes are closely connected.


Category mistakes Selectional restrictions Figurative language Metaphor Metonymy Fictional discourse Fiction Meaninglessness Nonsense Literal 



I am grateful to audiences in London, Bristol, and University of Sussex, as well as to Cian Dorr, Paul Elbourne, Guy Longworth, Beau Madison Mount, Daniel Rothschild, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OxfordOxfordUK

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