Research Article

Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 32, Issue 6, pp 553-581

First online:

Category mistakes are meaningful

  • Ofra MagidorAffiliated withBalliol College, University of Oxford Email author 

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Category mistakes are sentences such as ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ or ‘The theory of relativity is eating breakfast’. Such sentences are highly anomalous, and this has led a large number of linguists and philosophers to conclude that they are meaningless (call this ‘the meaninglessness view’). In this paper I argue that the meaninglessness view is incorrect and category mistakes are meaningful. I provide four arguments against the meaninglessness view: in Sect. 2, an argument concerning compositionality with respect to category mistakes; in Sect. 3 an argument concerning synonymy facts of category mistakes; in Sect. 4 concerning embeddings of category mistakes in propositional attitude ascriptions; and in Sect. 5 concerning the uses of category mistakes in metaphors. Having presented these arguments, in Sect. 6 I briefly discuss some of the positive motivations for accepting the meaninglessness view and argue that they are unconvincing. I conclude that the meaninglessness view ought to be rejected.


Category mistakes Selectional restrictions Selectional violations Compositionality Semantics Foundations of semantics Montague Grammar Type theoretic semantics Colorless green ideas sleep furiously Meaning Meaningfulness Meaninglessness Nonsense