Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 42, Issue 4, pp 333–347 | Cite as

What’s wrong with truth-conditional accounts of slurs

  • Bianca CepollaroEmail author
  • Tristan Thommen


The aim of this paper is to provide arguments based on linguistic evidence that discard a truth-conditional analysis of slurs (TCA) and pave the way for more promising approaches. We consider Hom and May’s version of TCA, according to which the derogatory content of slurs is part of their truth-conditional meaning such that, when slurs are embedded under semantic operators such as negation, there is no derogatory content that projects out of the embedding. In order to support this view, Hom and May make two moves: (1) they point to cases where it looks like projection does not occur and (2) they try to explain away cases where projection seems to occur by appealing to a pragmatic phenomenon that they call ‘offense’. Pace Hom and May, we argue that the derogatory content of slurs does in fact project and, in advocating for our claim, (1) we show that those cases where it looks like projection does not occur are in fact metalinguistic uses in which slurs are not really used, by relying on three linguistic tests (Sect. 3); and (2) we refute Hom and May’s attempt to explain why speakers would entertain the supposedly wrong intuition that the derogatory content of slurs projects out of semantic embedding, by focusing on the case of slurs for fictional entities (Sect. 4). We conclude that Hom and May’s strategies to support TCA ultimately fail.


Slurs Truth-conditional account Projection Metalinguistic negation Fictional slurs Expressives 


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We would like to thank Esa Diaz-Leon, Paul Egré, Michael Murez, Mihaela Popa-Wyatt and Philippe Schlenker for their suggestions. Claudia Bianchi, Max Kölbel, Robert May, François Recanati, Benjamin Spector and Isidora Stojanovic deserve special mention for their insightful comments on earlier versions of the paper. Many thanks to the participants of the ‘Names, demonstratives and expressives’ conference (Gargnano, September 2014), the ‘8th Latin Meeting in Analytic Philosophy’ conference (Milan, June 2015), the ‘2nd ECOM Workshop’ (Uconn, November 2015), the ‘The Methods of Philosophy’ conference (Milan, October 2017) for their insights and feedback. This paper was fully collaborative; the order of the authors' names is arbitrary. This work was supported in part by the Labex and Idex grants: ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC and ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*. Bianca Cepollaro also thanks the project PTDC/MHC-FIL/0521/2014 (in particular BI-Mestre-PTDC/MHC-FIL/0521/2014 and PTDC/MHC-FIL/0521/2014-SEM).


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Università Vita Salute San RaffaeleMilanItaly
  2. 2.Institut Jean Nicod (IJN), École Normale SupérieurePSL Research UniversityParisFrance

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