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Journal ArticleDOI

A Gricean Theory of Malaprops

01 Sep 2017-Mind & Language (Wiley)-Vol. 32, Iss: 4, pp 446-462

AboutThis article is published in Mind & Language.The article was published on 2017-09-01 and is currently open access. It has received 9 citation(s) till now. The article focuses on the topic(s): Meaning (non-linguistic) & Pragmatics.

Topics: Meaning (non-linguistic) (65%), Pragmatics (62%), Truth condition (59%), Semantics (53%), Grice (52%)

Summary (2 min read)

1 Introduction

  • Finally, this makes it possible to state another objection to the conventionalist thesis; the argument from arbitrariness.
  • The major conclusion is that, contrary to common opinion, the conventionalist cannot use malapropisms to undermine broadly Gricean accounts of what speakers say and mean, based on the No saying without meaning principle.

2 Malapropism: Saying without meaning?

  • Kerry clearly intended to refer to a Muslim fundamentalist sect called ‘Wahhabi’ but, due to fatigue or whatever, the similarsounding ‘wasabi’ stumbled through.
  • The third type of case is somewhat more complicated, but here is how the argument could go.
  • In fact, on Reimer’s (ibid., 325) conventionalist account, only the rst two types will provide counterexamples to No saying, as she believes that the speaker does say and mean the same thing in the third kind of case.
  • Citing the ‘obtuse’-example, Reimer (ibid., 322) writes that “[t]he speaker of a malaprop, upon being informed of the fact that his use was non-standard, would likely agree that what he actually said was di erent from what he intended to say.”.

3 The argument from underspeci cation

  • Now I will argue that the conventionalist fails to correctly describe the cases at hand because the conventionally encoded meaning of a linguistic expression—even if relativized to context—always underspeci es what is said by the speaker in uttering that expression on a given occasion.
  • It’s glaringly obvious that relativizing to context doesn’t support this answer.
  • Someone might stop me here and say, “You’re already assuming thatwasabi-as-condiment is much more salient in Kerry’s mind and in the context of utterance.
  • Whatever the authors say about the case at hand, this cannot be the conventionalist’s answer in general.
  • Even when the speaker is being indeterminate or engaging in double entendre of some sort, that the speaker’s intention constitutively determines which meaning is at issue.

4 The misarticulation theory of malapropisms

  • Now I present what the Gricean theorist, in a more positive way, should say about malapropism.
  • This results in a parsimonious and elegant theory that is compatible 10It is worth noting that both the conventionalist and the intentionalist could adopt the view that nothing is actually said in cases of malapropism; there is only what the speaker meant.
  • With the full range of ‘speech errors’ revealed both by experimental work and empirical observation.
  • In this case the speaker misarticulates ‘Nazi’ as ‘nasty.’.

5 Argument from arbitrariness

  • Accepting level-headed, phonetic explanations gives the upper hand to the misarticulation theory since the semantics of malaprop-expressions usually gure only minimally in the best explanations of their occurrence.
  • But since the speaker could have uttered (8) in the same context intending to refer to Obama the authors tend to think of the case di erently.
  • But empirical ndings yield grounds on which to build the decisive argument, which is an argument from arbitrariness: the conventionalist theory makes an entirely arbitrary distinction between word and non-word producing errors.
  • 17 Still, it might be claimed—this was indeed suggested to me by Michael Devitt (pers. comm.)—that in those cases where semantic features play a substantial role in the correct causal explanation of a malaprop the corresponding meaning could be attributed to the speaker.
  • He was leaving the pulpit when suddenly he stopped, returned, and announced to the congregation, “When in my sermon I said ‘Aristotle’ I meant St. Paul.”.

6 Conclusion

  • Famously, J. L. Austin (1957: 133n1) made a distinction between doing something by mistake and doing something by accident.
  • I don’t think his own formulation was a very helpful one, nor do I think he gave a good argument for accepting it—but those were, of course, the heady days of ordinary language.
  • When you mistake one thing for another thing you might do something wrong by mistake.
  • It seems plausible to say that malapropisms provide cases where speakers say something they didn’t intend or mean to say.
  • When speakers perform a speech error and produce a syntactically well formed sentence di erent from the one they intended, they don’t thereby say what that sentence is normally taken to say.

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A Gricean theory of malaprops
Elmar Unnsteinsson
Preprint. Please cite published version:
Mind & Language (2017) 32(4):446–462
doi:10.1111/mila.12149
Abstract
Gricean intentionalists hold that what a speaker says and means by a linguistic
utterance is determined by the speaker’s communicative intention. On this view,
one cannot really say anything without meaning it as well. Conventionalists
argue, however, that malapropisms provide powerful counterexamples to this
claim. I present two arguments against the conventionalist and sketch a new
Gricean theory of speech errors, called the misarticulation theory. On this view
malapropisms are understood as a special case of mispronunciation. I argue that
the Gricean theory is supported by empirical work in phonetics and phonology
and, also, that conventionalism inevitably fails to do this work justice. I conclude,
from this, that the conventionalist fails to show that malapropisms constitute a
counterexample to a Gricean theory.
1 Introduction
What should Gricean intentionalists say about malapropisms or speech errors more
generally? Here, I am concerned with a group of ‘Griceans’ who share at least one
core commitment.
No say ing wi thout mean ing
If speaker S says that p by uttering sentence
σ
in language L on some occasion,
(B) elmar.geir@gmail.com
First, I want to thank Michael Devitt, Stephen Neale and Stephen Schier, who got me thinking
about these issues in a seminar at NYU in spring 2013. The paper has also benetted from discus-
sion, suggestions, and comments from Michael Devitt, Daniel Harris, Hrafn Ásgeirsson, Aðalsteinn
Hákonarson, Matt Moss, Thomas Hodgson, Deirdre Wilson, Robert Stainton, and Nanna Teitsdóttir.
Finally, many thanks to the reviewers for this journal for all their helpful and incisive comments.

Malapropism: Saying without meaning? 2
(i) p must be constitutively determined by S’s speaker meaning on that occasion
and, (ii) p must be compatible with the abstract linguistic meaning of σ in L.
No saying is not endorsed by all purported Griceans and is commonly rejected on
the basis of speech error data. Philosophers have tried to undermine the principle in
all sorts of other ways as well.
1
I believe No saying is true and that showing this is quite important for devel-
oping a viable theory of meaning and communication.
2
Griceans quibble about the
proper analysis of speaker meaning but that issue can be set aside here. My argu-
ments are compatible with any of the most plausible theories, all of them analyzing
speaker meaning in terms of some notion of the speaker’s communicative intention.
In what follows, however, I am only concerned with one immediate but controversial
implication of No saying, namely that speakers must always mean what they say.
I begin by explaining why malapropisms are thought to count against Griceanism
as dened by No saying. The most fully worked out argument of this kind is due
to Marga Reimer. She argues that her own ‘conventionalist’ theory of what is said by
malapropisms gives the best explanation of the data. Then I present my rst objec-
tion to conventionalism; the argument from underspecication. In the next section,
I present my own theory, or sketch of a theory, called the ‘misarticulation’ theory
of malapropisms, and show how it is supported by work done on speech errors by
phoneticians. Finally, this makes it possible to state another objection to the con-
ventionalist thesis; the argument from arbitrariness. The major conclusion is that,
contrary to common opinion, the conventionalist cannot use malapropisms to un-
dermine broadly Gricean accounts of what speakers say and mean, based on the No
saying without meaning principle.
2 Malapropism: Saying without meaning?
It is dicult to do justice to the variety of slips and verbal blunders falling under the
heading of ‘malaprop, so, to x ideas, I distinguish three kinds. Then I explain how
1
See, e.g., Saul (2002, 2007). Elsewhere, I focus on counterexamples to No saying where the
speaker has a conicting referential intention because of false identity beliefs—due to,e.g., Kaplan (1978),
Kripke (1977), Reimer (1992)—but these need to be distinguished from malapropisms (forthcoming).
See also my article ‘Confusion is corruptive belief in false identity’ (2016a). On my view, however, both
should be categorized as a kind of pragmatic performance error. Of course, this would constitute a
substantial revision of the traditional Chomskyan notion of ‘performance.
2
See, e.g., Bach (1987); Donnellan (2012); Neale (2005, pp. 181–182); Strawson (1974, p. 52);
Unnsteinsson (2014, 2016b).

Malapropism: Saying without meaning? 3
these examples are thought to give rise to an objection to Griceanism. Consider the
following cases.
1.
Incidental malaprop: When John Kerry was presidential candidate for Democrats
in 2004, running against George W. Bush, he slipped while giving a speech and
uttered ‘wasabi’ instead of ‘Wahhabi. Kerry clearly intended to refer to a Muslim
fundamentalist sect called ‘Wahhabi’ but, due to fatigue or whatever, the similar-
sounding ‘wasabi’ stumbled through.
2.
Persistent malaprop: Reimer (2004) describes a colleague who persistently ut-
tered obtuse when he clearly meant that something was abstruse.
3.
Intentional malaprop. Davidson (1986) cites an example where the speaker in-
tentionally utters ‘bae of wits’ instead of ‘battle of wits’ for comic eect.
I dene ‘malapropism, roughly, as an utterance where some target expression is re-
placed by a dierent expression that is similar in pronunciation. Only unintended
replacements, as in (1) and (2), count as errors. Any of these three examples, however,
can then be used to make a plausible argument, along the following lines.
For the rst two types there is some proposition p such that the speaker actu-
ally said and asserted that p, without meaning that p. In the rst example, Kerry said
something about wasabi without meaning anything about wasabi. In the second the
colleague said someone’s writing was obtuse without meaning that anyone’s writing
was obtuse. The third type of case is somewhat more complicated, but here is how
the argument could go. In intentionally uttering a sentence containing the expres-
sion ‘bae the speaker said something involving a bae without meaning anything
about a bae, because there is no such thing. The speaker may have meant, however,
something involving a baing battle.
All three examples thus appear to support the idea that, in cases of malapropism,
speakers can say something without actually meaning it. For now, I focus only on the
rst two types, leaving intentional malaprops until the very end. In fact, on Reimer’s
(ibid., 325) conventionalist account, only the rst two types will provide counterex-
amples to No saying, as she believes that the speaker does say and mean the same
thing in the third kind of case.
This leaves us with a question: Why should we accept the description of the rst
two cases as involving saying without meaning? Citing the ‘obtuse’-example, Reimer
(ibid., 322) writes that “[t]he speaker of a malaprop, upon being informed of the fact
that his use was non-standard, would likely agree that what he actually said was
dierent from what he intended to say. A few sentences later, she gives a fairly direct
answer to my question.

Malapropism: Saying without meaning? 4
[I]f we are going to develop a philosophically sound notion of saying, it
would presumably be best to build it upon a pre-theoretical notion that is
sensitive to a distinction that has clear explanatory value: the distinction
between saying and (speaker) meaning. This is a distinction that allows us
to explain (inter alia) the coherence of claiming that one doesn’t always
mean what one says.
According to Reimer, then, we should posit a distinction between saying and meaning
to explain why it is coherent for speakers to describe malapropisms in terms of the
distinction.
3
But how is what is said determined, then, if not by way of communicative
intentions? On Reimer’s view, it is determined by linguistic convention; in making the
malaprop the speaker simply says and asserts what the words conventionally mean’
in the language in question. Without assuming a full-blown theory of conventionality,
Reimer takes this to imply,at a minimum, that by engaging in the rule governed activity
of speaking English, the speaker tacitly agrees to have their utterances interpreted in
accordance with the conventions of the language. As they say, speaking a language is
like playing a game. It follows, then, that Reimer’s colleague asserted that someone’s
writing was obtuse while meaning that it was abstruse.
More specically, Reimer—and those who share her general outlook
4
—speaks of
contextually relativized conventional meaning’ in order to “accommodate indexicality
and ambiguity” (ibid., 333n2). Assuming that this is clear enough let us state the
Reimerian thesis as follows:
Conventionalist theory of malapropisms
When speaker S utters malaprop-sentence
µ
, the content of what S says is de-
termined by the contextually relativized conventional meaning of
µ
, which is,
say, the proposition that p.
Additionally, S may mean and implicate all sorts of things other than what S strictly
says by uttering
µ
. Further, at least when dealing with unintended malaprops, that p is
no part of what S means or intends. A malaprop-sentence is any sentence containing
an expression that ‘replaced’—in a sense to be made precise below—another similar-
sounding expression in the speaker’s utterance.
3
Michael Devitt (2013: 88) also describes speech errors, spoonerisms in particular, as cases of
unintentionally saying one thing and meaning another.
4
Searle (1969: ch. 2) is a classic statement of this type of conventionalism.

The argument from undersp ecication 5
3 The argument from underspecication
Now I will argue that the conventionalist fails to correctly describe the cases at hand
because the conventionally encoded meaning of a linguistic expression—even if rela-
tivized to context—always underspecies what is said by the speaker in uttering that
expression on a given occasion. This idea is not new and was spelled out in some
detail by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in Relevance (1986/1995) and other work.
5
Gricean theorists propose to bridge this gap with communicative intentions, so that
successful communication is always explained by means of the hearer’s capacities for
intention-recognition and mindreading.
6
In light of this tradition in philosophy of language, let’s take a closer look at so-
called ‘incidental’ malaprops. Assume Kerry uttered,
(1) Wasabi is a dangerous sect,
but his plan was to utter,
(2) Wahhabi is a dangerous sect.
Now, what exactly, according to the conventionalist, did Kerry say by uttering (1)?
What is the contextually relativized conventional meaning of (1)? The simple disquo-
tational answer would be that Kerry said (3).
(3) that wasabi is a dangerous sect.
But this is far from clear. ‘Wasabi’ is clearly polysemous or ambiguous.
7
It can refer to
(i) a condiment popular on sushi, or (ii) a plant of the Brassicacae family, from which
the condiment is produced. The conventionalist has three options, it seems: either
Kerry said something about (i), or (ii), or (iii) the meaning is somehow indeterminate
between the two. But all three options are problematic.
5
Cf. Wilson & Sperber (2012). I argue for this view of underspecication in my (2014), but related
ideas are to be found in, e.g., Bach (1994a, 1994b); Bezuidenhout (2002); Carston (2002); Neale (2016);
Perry (1986, 2012); Recanati (2010); Reimer (2002); Searle (1978); Travis (1989, 1997); Weiskopf (2007);
Wettstein (1984).
6
To be clear, the notion of what is said at play in No saying is a notion that incorporates illocu-
tionary force. This is as it should be, as competent hearers must recognize this part of the speaker’s
intention if communication is to succeed. Dierent theorists have of course proposed dierent ways of
cutting the saying-pie. For example, Bach (1994a) denes a notion of a proposition type relativized to
narrow context, which explicitly excludes creatures of illocution. This stipulated notion is not at issue
in this paper.
7
The dierence between polysemy and ambiguity seems to be mostly a matter of degree. See
Sennet (2011) for discussion.

Citations
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  • ...It maymatter, though, when I want to be taken as referring tomy favorite wines but not my favorite vines (Unnsteinsson 2017)....

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Abstract: Kripke (1980, 55) distinguishes between using a description to fix the reference of an expression and using it to give its meaning. Kaplan and Stalnaker then articulated a distinction between semantics and metasemantics or foundational semantics, ascribing complementary roles to each. To the former category belong theories that assign meanings to their bearers, prominent among them linguistic expressions. To the latter belong theories that provide “the basis” for ascribing such meanings (Kaplan 1989b, 573– 574) or state “what the facts are” that give these meanings to their bearers (Stalnaker 1997, 535). This is a metaphysical undertaking on the grounding of meaningfacts, on what determines, fixes, or constitutes them. This distinction is sometimes used to consign to “mere” metasemantics descriptive material that, on both intuitive and theoretical grounds, plays a linguistically significant role in the determination of the referents of names and other expressions. In previous work (GarcíaCarpintero 2000, 2006a, 2018a), I appealed to referencefixing presuppositions with the aim of undermining this application of the distinction. Following Heim, I assumed that linguistic presuppositions are features of linguistic meaning (GarcíaCarpintero 2018b). Indeed, in the ensuing years the view that descriptive referencefixing presuppositions are part of linguistic meaning has become mainstream in semantics (cf., e.g., Heim 2008; Hunter 2013; Maier 2010, 2016). For such descriptive material— I have argued— Kripke’s distinction only tracks a contrast between “planes” or “levels” of content— “at issue” vs. “backgrounded”. However, it is not straightforward to understand how the relevant presuppositions that semanticists posit play the referencefixing role that Kripke was envisaging. In this contribution I want to confront this issue. I will approach it by assuming an account of the semantics vs. metasemantics divide that I have provided elsewhere (GarcíaCarpintero 2012, forthcominga). I advance there a version of the Austinian normative approach originally promoted by Alston (1964), Austin (1962) and Searle (1969). Although displaced for a while by the influence of Gricean and Chomskian views on the issue, it is becoming popular again among philosophers and linguists. On this view, meaningfacts about natural languages are determined by social norms and social conventions. In what follows, I will articulate in that framework the distinction between semantic and nonsemantic (“pre”or “post”semantic) facts in referencefixing, presuppositionally understood.

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  • ...13 Cf. Davis (1999, 35 n), Unnsteinsson (2017)....

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