When is it ok to call someone a jerk? An experimental investigation of expressives


We present two experimental studies on the Italian expressive ‘stronzo’ (English ‘jerk’). The first study tests whether, and to which extent, the acceptability of using an expressive is sensitive to the information available in the context. The study looks both at referential uses of expressives (as in the complex demonstrative ‘that jerk Marco’) and predicative uses of expressives (as in ‘Marco is a jerk’). The results show that expressives are sensitive to contextual information to a much higher degree than the non-expressive control items (such as ‘Piedmontese’) in their referential use, but also, albeit to a lesser degree, in their predicative use. The second study tests whether the lower acceptability of expressives in their predicative use may be simply due to saying something negative about someone. A comparison between expressives, such as ‘jerk’, and non-expressive negative terms, such as ‘nasty’ or ‘unbearable’, suggests that it is the expressive nature of these terms, rather than the mere negative valence, that affects acceptability. Our studies present a major challenge to the existing accounts of expressives, and raise several theoretical issues that still call for an answer.

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  1. 1.

    See i.a. Schlenker (2007), Hom (2008), McCready (2010), Anderson et al. (2012), Anderson and Lepore (2013a, b), Camp (2013, 2018) Jeshion (2013, 2018), Cepollaro and Stojanovic (2016), Bolinger (2017), Nunberg (2018), Cepollaro (2020).

  2. 2.

    Slurs and expressives do not necessarily split neatly into two separate classes. The term ‘bitch’ is a case at point: it is sometimes seen as an expressive, that is, as a female equivalent of ‘bastard’, but at other times it is considered to be a slur that derogates not only the individual for whom it is used, but all women as such (see Ashwell 2016: her point concerns whether or not slurs have a neutral counterpart in general, but we can take her arguments and examples to show a borderline case between slurs and particularistic insults).

  3. 3.

    Throughout the paper, we will be simply using the term ‘expressive’ for pejorative epithets such as ‘jerk’ or ‘bastard’, leaving aside other expressions that are considered to belong among expressive, such as the modifiers ‘fucking’ and ‘damn’, interjections such as ‘awesome’, and the like.

  4. 4.

    There are certain constructions, such as free indirect discourse, in which the expressive content is seen as reflecting not the speaker’s (or the narrator’s) feelings and attitudes, but rather, those of some salient protagonist whose speech or thought are being reported. The use of expressives in such constructions falls beyond the scope of the present paper. For discussion, see i.a. Amaral et al. (2007) Schlenker (2007), Potts (2007), Harris and Potts (2009), Harris (2012), Kaiser (2015).

  5. 5.

    Schlenker (2007) allows such indexical presuppositions to shift under certain circumstances, so that in indirect reports, the speaker to whom the indexical is attached can be either the reporter or the reportee.

  6. 6.

    The relevant notion of common ground comes from Stalnaker, as succinctly captured in this quote: “It is common ground that φ in a group if all members accept (for the purpose of the conversation) that φ, and all believe that all accept that φ, and all believe that all believe that all accept that φ, etc.” (Stalnaker 2002, p. 716).

  7. 7.

    Tonhauser et al. do not employ the notion of accommodation, but they acknowledge a certain link between the Strong Contextual Felicity Constraint and the ease with which a presupposition can be accommodated:

    “These empirical observations about English presupposition triggers are traditionally rendered consistent with the assumption that the English expressions impose constraints on contexts (e.g. Heim 1983; van der Sandt 1992; Geurts 1999; Schlenker 2009) by assuming the availability of ACCOMMODATION (Lewis 1979, building on Stalnaker 1974). Accommodation is a process whereby the interpreter ‘updates’ her view of the context to render it suitable for the utterance of the relevant trigger. From this theoretical perspective, those (English and Guaraní) triggers that test positive on the diagnostic for the strong contextual felicity constraint are subject to a particularly strong constraint on context that cannot be satisfied by accommodation. Those that test negative on the diagnostic might either be subject to a weak constraint that allows for satisfaction via accommodation, or might not be subject to a constraint at all. (See Simons et al. 2011 for arguments against the accommodation view)” Tonhauser et al. (2013, p. 80).

  8. 8.

    Note that H3 is not strictly speaking incompatible with H1 and H2: a H3-supporter could hold that because expressives are taboo words, they are always infelicitous, so by investigating how acceptable their use is, one cannot investigate whether they impose contextual constraints. H3 can be seen as an extension of Anderson and Lepore (2013a, b)’s theory of slurs to other expressives.

  9. 9.

    As a matter of fact, when scholars talk about ‘jerk’, they are actually talking about ‘that jerk’. This passage from Potts is representative of this tendency: “In ‘That jerk Ed skipped work last week (…)’ The expressive contribution of jerk is not interpreted in the scope of the past tense of the first sentence’s main clause” Potts (2005, p. 159). What Potts is actually talking about is the that jerk, not jerk.

  10. 10.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pressing this point. We also plan to run a follow-up study that will distinguish between the two contexts, and compare the respective rates of acceptability.

  11. 11.

    As pointed out at the end of the previous section, it is a non-trivial question of what the expressive content associated with an expression like ‘jerk’ should be. In the following scenario, we have described a satisfying context by describing the target (Bea) as someone whom her colleagues do not like because she is rude to everyone. As an anonymous reviewer has rightly pointed out, this context entails that Bea is “a jerk” only modulo the assumption that her being rude to everyone, and hence disliked by everyone, makes her worthy of such a negative attitude. Nevertheless, we believe that our scenarios reflect as accurately as possible the differences that one would want to find between satisfying and non-satisfying contexts. (Note, furthermore, that stating explicitly in the scenario that Bea “is a jerk” was not a viable option).

  12. 12.

    While our studies have been designed to test contextual acceptability, they do not completely rule out the possibility that certain participants may be tracking the notion of social acceptability after all.

  13. 13.

    By suggesting that the expressive term ‘jerk’ in the predicative form may impose contextual constraints, we are by no means claiming that ‘jerk’, used as a predicate, triggers projective content. What we observe, rather, is that the availability of the relevant contextual information (viz. that someone is—or deserves to be—held in low opinion) has an impact on the acceptability of expressives to a much greater extent than in the case of non-expressives, regardless of whether they are in the predicative or referential position.

  14. 14.

    As previously noted, some authors, like Potts (2005), are inclined to include terms such as ‘nasty’ among expressives. Beside the problems of assimilating expressives and evaluative adjectives that we have already mentioned (see Berškytė and Stevens 2019), our study may be seen as revealing yet further disparities between the two classes of expressions.

  15. 15.

    One may object that the difference in average rates between EXP and NEG does not show that the effects brought about by EXP depend on its expressive nature: it may be the case that any negative term shows this effect (that of being unacceptable in neutral context and acceptable in satisfying ones), and that, since ‘stronzo’ is just more negative than the average of the others taken together, it only looks like ‘stronzo’ has a special behavior. In order to rule out this worry, we ran an analysis of the data that revealed that the acceptability of ‘stronzo’ is significantly lower than any other negative term taken alone. This means that none of the negative terms we tested behaves like ‘stronzo’.

  16. 16.

    There have been empirical studies on expressives, in particular Harris and Potts (2009) and Kaiser (2015), but what they have tested is the availability of non-speaker-oriented uses of expressives. This topic, however important, remains somewhat orthogonal to the issues that we have tried to address.


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We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for Synthese, several anonymous reviewers for SALT and Sinn und Bedeutung for constructive comments on previous drafts, Judith Tonhauser and Neftalí Villanueva for stimulating discussion, Simona di Paola for support in the statistical analysis, the audiences at the workshop Language and Power (Barcelona, May 2018), PhiloLab Summer School (Granada, September 2018), XPrag in Edinburg (June 2019), SEFA in Valencia (November 2019) for their insights, comments and suggestions. Bianca Cepollaro also gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Grant G45J18000030001 (University of Milan) and the PRIN Project The Mark of Mental (MOM) 2017P9E9N. Isidora Stojanovic would like to thanks the Project ANR-17-EURE-0017 FrontCog.

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Cepollaro, B., Domaneschi, F. & Stojanovic, I. When is it ok to call someone a jerk? An experimental investigation of expressives. Synthese (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02633-z

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  • Pejoratives
  • Expressives
  • Projective content
  • Contextual felicity