LINGUIST List 7.506

Fri Apr 5 1996

Disc: Ungrammatical sentences

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, `ungrammatical' vs. `unacceptable'
  2. "Karen S. Chung", Re: 7.484, Ungrammatical sentences

Message 1: `ungrammatical' vs. `unacceptable'

Date: Sat, 30 Mar 1996 22:39:05 CST
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: `ungrammatical' vs. `unacceptable'

Karen Chung reported in LINGUIST 7-484:

> 	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....
> 	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.

The impression i got out of early courses in my days as a graduate
student, and which i have tried to maintain, is that there is a major
conceptual distinction between `ungrammatical' and `unacceptable'.
`Ungrammatical' means `incompatible with or ungeneratable by a
specific (formal) grammar'; `unacceptable' means `unacceptable -- for
any of a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing whatsoever to
do with grammar'. The standard examples, as i remember, were clauses
like `my toothbrush is pregnant' and `3 is angry'; Karen's `the
scissors are happy' would fit right in here. We were taught that
these sentences were `grammatical' in that they conformed to the
standard structural rules of English grammar; they were merely
semantically anomalous. One could, however, imagine situations in
which they would be appropriate. As i have pointed out in another
context, sentences like these, as well as such things as `There is a
unicorn in the garden' or `In a hole in the ground there lived a
hobbit' are troublesome only if one takes it as given that the
circumstances they refer to are outside the realm of possibility; once
one has decided to assume, for the purpose, that unicorns or hobbits
exist or that abstract concepts like numbers are capable of emotional
reactions, one can go on for pages like this with little cognitive

An `ungrammatical' string, on the other hand, would be something like
`My three uncles is angry' or `There is some rabbits in these garden',
which (at least for me) create massive cognitive difficulties, to the
point that i have to struggle hard to compose them and then type them.
It's precisely this cognitive difficulty that i, as a grammarian, find
of interest. I'm not at all interested in people complaining that
there can't possibly be a unicorn in the garden.

Dr. Steven Schaufele
712 West Washington
Urbana, IL 61801

**** O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum! ***
*** Nihil vestris privari nisi obicibus potestis! ***
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 7.484, Ungrammatical sentences

Date: Tue, 02 Apr 1996 13:15:53 +0800
From: "Karen S. Chung" <>
Subject: Re: 7.484, Ungrammatical sentences

> Dear Karen: "The scissors are happy" is indeed ungrammatical, meaning 
> that if it occurs in a corpus it requires special explanation. This just 
> means that it is not, as it stands, properly characterized by the rules of 
> English grammar. No big problem: after all, "colorless green ideas sleep 
> furiously", since being introduced as a semantically incongruous but 
> apparently grammatical sentence, at least in outer form, has since become 
> the title and first line of at least two poems, at least one of these by 
> a distinguished and well-known poet.
>	Native speakers do not need to be constrained by grammar; 
> linguists should be. Yours, kvt(=Karl V. Teeter, Professor of 
> Linguistics, Emeritus, Harvard University)

	I disagree.
	It is a linguist's job to describe or account for anything a
native speaker can come up with that accomplishes the task of
communication, whether it is in accord with book constraints or not. Why
should linguists embrace standards different from those followed by real
	And who was it that decided that 'grammatical' also means
'non-context-conditioned'? Is that a valid requirement? If it is, it
should be made explicit and opened up to discussion rather than treated as
an assumption and swept under the rug. 
	Since we distinguish the categories of 'grammar/syntax' and
'semantics' in our study of language, we should at least be consistent in
our usage of the terms. Any sentence that follows the rules of grammar is
'grammatical'. Semantic issues do not belong in grammar rules. They should
be treated separately in the study of semantics. I believe this is one
major area where syntax studies have gone awry. 
	The orthodoxy that tends to be expected of syntax specialists in
coming up with example sentences and making grammaticality judgments is
nothing short of amazing to me - especially coming from my own
countrypeople (i.e. from the US). US culture tends to make high demands in
the areas of wittiness and humor of those desiring social acceptance and
status. You don't get elected class president with sentences like, 'The
farmer kills the duckling.'(1) (Though I'm sure that, too, could be funny
in the right context.)
	If our study of syntax does not reflect real-life usage, including
the kinds of sentences we come up with in response to cultural demands
(e.g. to be 'cool', witty, creative, or whatever), it is obviously not
doing a good job of describing the language real people use in real

					 Karen Steffen Chung		
					 National Taiwan University

(1) Note: See Chafe, Wallace. 1994. _Discourse, consciousness, and time._
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 17. Chapter two offers an
excellent discussion of what a 'natural' utterance is. Or better yet, read
the whole book! 
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue