LINGUIST List 7.484

Sat Mar 30 1996

Misc: Ungrammatical sentences, Gender switching

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. "Karen S. Chung", Re: 7.470, Ungrammatical sentences?
  2. Elena Bertoncini, gender switching

Message 1: Re: 7.470, Ungrammatical sentences?

Date: Fri, 29 Mar 1996 06:32:01 +0800
From: "Karen S. Chung" <>
Subject: Re: 7.470, Ungrammatical sentences?

> ``Well, the books sell well in order to raise money, and then
> the money is used to to pay people in order that the people
> have enough money to buy the books. That's my secret.''
> In other words, if "the books sell well" can be construed to mean "I
> have the books sell well" then (1) "becomes" grammatical. But
> syntactic violations are seldom overcome by semantic
> re-interpretation.
> -Joel Hoffman
> (

	Re the discussion of 'ungrammatical sentences':
	Are 'frequency of occurrence' or 'plausibility of the situation
described' key criteria in deciding whether a sentence is grammatical or
	I remember being told way back in my very first university
linguistics class that 'The scissors are happy.' is 'ungrammatical'
because of its semantic incongruity. As a writing teacher and
occasional drama coach, I am well aware that *any* situation, possible
or impossible in the 'real world', can not only be created in the
human mind, but also expressed in human language. And metaphor and
creative use of language don't even require a fantastic invented
situation to be appropriate. One person might be rearranging things in
a room, to the annoyance of someone else who thinks things are fine
just as they are. The second person could conceivably say something
like, 'You don't need to put away the scissors - they're quite happy
right where they are.' - without sounding too out of line. (...'Oh, so
the scissors are happy?' 'Yes, the scissors are happy.')
	There are plenty of initially 'weird-sounding' sentences, some
of them starred in syntax textbooks, that are perfectly natural, and
perhaps even the *only* appropriate thing to say in a certain
	The problem is that this kind of sentence is usually *highly*
contextualized. A *basic* grammar of a language will not and should
not go out of its way to treat such sentences for beginners. But can
it say that such a sentence is 'ungrammtical' if and when it comes up?
Only if a sentence is construed to mean the straightforward,
noncontextualized idea that it seems to be expressing awkwardly or
incorrectly. But syntax textbooks often fail to mention that this is
what they are doing. They should say, 'If the following sentence is
intended to mean [x], then it is ungrammatical. There are however
situations in which [x], with a quite different interpretation, could
be acceptable.'
	Unless we make it clear that a quite of few of those
asterisked utterances are wrong only because they are not elegant or
'correct' statements of the very conventional ideas we tend to assume
they should be describing, we really have no right to disqualify any
sentence in a language as 'ungrammatical' for purely semantic reasons.

					 Karen Steffen Chung		
					 National Taiwan University
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Message 2: gender switching

Date: Fri, 29 Mar 1996 18:48:19 +0100
From: Elena Bertoncini <>
Subject: gender switching
Regarding Keith Goeringer's remark on use of masculine markers by
women, I realized that something similar happens in Kiswahili, on the
lexical level (there is no morphological distinction of masculine and
feminine). A woman may call another woman (of the same age or younger)
"bwana" (sir), "baba" (father) or "babu" (grandfather), e.g. as a term
of endearment. The opposite never happens, you may not call a boy
"mama" or "bibi" (madam).

 Elena Bertoncini
Elena Bertoncini
Via dell'Aeroporto 68
56121 Pisa
tel. *39-50-45419
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