What is Considered 'Ungrammatical'?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Young woman looking over the top of a book

 

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In descriptive grammar, the term ungrammatical refers to an irregular word group or sentence structure that makes little apparent sense because it disregards the syntactic conventions of the language. Contrast with grammaticality.

In language studies (and on this website), examples of ungrammatical constructions are usually preceded by asterisks (*). Judgments regarding ungrammatical constructions are often subject to gradience.

In prescriptive grammar, ungrammatical may refer to a word group or sentence structure that fails to conform to the "proper" way of speaking or writing, according to the standards set by some authority. Also called grammatical error. Contrast with correctness.

Examples and Observations

  • "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. . . .
  • "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)
  • "Sentences . . . are simply the highest-level expressions of a language, and an ungrammatical string is a morpheme sequence which fails to constitute a meaningful expression of any kind."
    (Michael B. Kac, Grammars and Grammaticality. John Benjamins, 1992)
     

    Examples of Grammatical and Ungrammatical Sentences With Reflexive Pronouns

    • Grammatical Ungrammatical(Terri L. Wells, "L2 Acquisition of English Binding Domains." Morphology and Its Interfaces in Second Language Knowledge, ed. by Maria-Luise Beck. John Benjamins, 1998)
    1. The smart student thinks that the teacher likes himself.
    1. The very happy mother said that the girl dresses herself.
    2. The young child said that the pretty woman hurt herself.
    3. The man in the blue jacket said that the dog bit himself.
    4. The crying father said that the younger boy cut himself.
    5. The woman thinks that the student does not like herself.
    6. The doctor said that the old man shot himself in the foot.
    7. The lawyers think that the four policemen shot themselves.
    8. *The man thinks the boy does not like that stupid himself.
    9. *The woman said that the little girl saw yesterday's herself.
    10. *The taxi driver said that the man hit that careless himself.
    11. *The girl said that the teacher laughed at that funny herself.
    12. *The soldiers know that the generals like today's themselves.
    13. *The student said that the athlete hurt that stupid himself.
    14. *The mother wrote that the child laughed at that slow herself.
    15. *The man said that the boy was angry with the lazy himself.

    Distinguishing Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

    • "The sentence below is a garden-variety English sentence, which is descriptively grammatical to any English speaker . . ..

    I eat bacon and eggs with ketchup.

    • We can form a question based on this sentence as follows:

    What do you eat bacon and eggs with?

    • This sentence is descriptively grammatical but violates a prescriptive rule; recall that for some, ending a sentence with a preposition (in this case, with) is prescriptively ungrammatical. But now consider this sentence:

      I eat bacon and eggs and ketchup.

      • When we try to form a question we get the following:

      *What do you eat bacon and eggs and?

      No English speaker would utter this sentence (hence the *), but why not? The source sentences look exactly the same; the only difference is that ketchup follows with in the first sentence, and and in the second. It turns out that with, a preposition, functions quite differently from and, a conjunction, and the distinction between the two is part of our unconscious knowledge of English. Studying this unconscious knowledge, revealed in puzzles like this one, allows us to construct a model, or theory of descriptive grammar, a model that attempts to explain why we quite naturally produce grammatical sentences such as What did you eat your bacon and eggs with? but not ungrammatical ones like What did you eat your bacon and eggs and?

      " (Anne Lobeck and Kristin Denham, Navigating English Grammar: A Guide to Analyzing Real Language. Blackwell, 2014)