grammaticality (well-formedness)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker (Viking, 2007).


In linguistics (particularly in generative grammar), the term grammaticality refers to the conformity of a sentence to the rules defined by a specific grammar of a language. Also called well-formedness and grammaticalness. Contrast with ungrammatical.

Grammaticality should not be confused with notions of correctness or acceptability as determined by prescriptive grammarians. "Grammaticality is a theoretical term," says Frederick J.

Newmeyer: "a sentence is 'grammatical' if it is generated by the grammar, 'ungrammatical' if it is not" (Grammatical Theory: Its Limits and Its Possibilities, 1983). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "I owe you an explanation of what it means to claim that 'you can't say this' or 'such-and-such is ungrammatical.' These judgments are the most commonly used empirical data in linguistics: a sentence under a certain interpretation and in a certain context is classified as grammatical, ungrammatical, or having various degrees of iffiness. These judgments aren't meant to accredit a sentence as being correct or incorrect in some objective sense (whatever that would mean) . . .. Designating a sentence as 'ungrammatical' simply means that native speakers tend to avoid the sentence, cringe when they hear it, and judge it as sounding odd.

    "Note too that when a sentence is deemed ungrammatical, it might still be used in certain circumstances. There are special constructions, for example, in which English speakers use transitive verbs intransitively, as when a parent says to a child Justin bites--I don't want you to bite. . . .Calling a sentence ungrammatical means that it sounds odd 'all things being equal'--that is, in a neutral context, under its conventional meaning, and with no special circumstances in force."
    (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature. Viking, 2007)
  • Acceptability and Grammaticality
    - "The concept of grammaticality is intrinsically linked to Noam Chomsky and was intended to account for possible violations of the basic phrase structure."
    (Anita Fetzer, Recontextualizing Context: Grammaticality Meets Appropriateness. John Benjamins, 2004)

     - "Acceptability is the extent to which a sentence allowed by the rules to be grammatical is considered permissible by speakers and hearer; grammaticality is the extent to which a 'string' of language conforms with a set of given rules. . . .

    "Acceptability . . . is related to speaker's performance, that is the actual use of her language in concrete situations. As stressed by Chomsky, acceptability should not be confused with grammaticality: while an acceptable sentence must be grammatical, not just any grammatical sentence is necessarily acceptable. For a sentence to be judged acceptable, it must also appear natural and appropriate in a given context, be easily understood and, possibly, be to a certain extent conventionalised."
    (Marie Nilsenova in Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, ed. by Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge. Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
  • Grammaticality and Good Style
    "For human language, the distinction between grammaticality and good style is, for most linguists and for most cases, clear. But there are definitely borderline cases where it's not clear whether a problem with a sentence is grammatical or stylistic. Here is a notorious example, involving self-centre-embedding, a contentious issue since the beginnings of generative grammar.
    Where is the book that the students the professor I met taught studied?
    The orthodox view in generative linguistics is that such examples are perfectly grammatical English, but stylistically poor, because they are hard to parse."
    (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • Grammaticality in Context
    "[T]here are a great many cases where it makes no sense to speak of the well-formedness or 'grammaticality' of a sentence in isolation. Instead one must speak of a relative well-formedness and/or relative grammaticality; that is, in such cases a sentence will be well-formed only with respect to certain presuppositions about the nature of the world."
    (George Lakoff, "Presupposition and Relative Well-Formedness." Semantics: An Interdisciplinary Reader in Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology, ed. by Danny D. Steinberg and Leon A. Jakobovits. Cambridge University Press, 1971)
  • The Lighter Side of Grammaticality
    Dwight Schrute: Speaking of funerals, why don't you go ahead and go die?
    Andy: Oh, that was a really well-constructed sentence. You should be an English professor at "Or Not" University.
    Dwight Schrute: Idiot.
    (Rainn Wilson and Ed Helms in "The Merger," The Office)


Pronunciation: gre-MA-te-KAL-eh-tee

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Nordquist, Richard. "grammaticality (well-formedness)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2016, Nordquist, Richard. (2016, July 31). grammaticality (well-formedness). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "grammaticality (well-formedness)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).