27

There's this large source of confusion among learners and sometimes even native speakers. They tend to think if something doesn't sound right to their ears, it must be ungrammatical, while that's at times not the case.

Often we hear things like hey, dude, "I know it ." is ungrammatical because there's a space before period and it shouldn't be there. or "Don't eat cold water" is ungrammatical. How can you not know that?! while both of these are perfectly grammatical utterances, but err in some other ways. This post is to clear that up, by explaining why not every error in language usage is a grammatical one.

In what ways don't each of these utterances get it right?

foon speeding

I can't knows how to correct write this sentence.

The little whale is eating the purple sky.

A: How does the food taste?
B: I love playing tennis!

I don't understand what's wrong with this sentence,

37

There are a multitude of ways we can approach this. There are a lot of classifications and labels for things that can be reasonably marked as wrong in language. For instance, an error might happen in speech or it could happen in writing. It might happen more often in informal contexts or in formal ones prone to hypercorrection. Some errors appear everywhere.

Heck, some errors are actually intentional, and aim to reduce the perceived formality of the message. The errors discussed here are assumed to be unintentional.

This answer classifies the types of errors on what area of language study they concern.

Phonological errors

foon speeding

"phono-", according to LDOCE, is a prefix used for whatever relates to sound. Thus, phonological errors are almost always seen in speech, much less in writing. Notably, sometimes they're intentional, and add humorous effect to what's being told.

"foon speeding" is a classic example of spoonerism, where your mind transposes segments of words or phrases.

Morphosyntactic or Grammatical errors

I can't knows how to correct write this sentence.

Morpho-syntax is just a more formal term for "grammar". This is the type of error we're all familiar with: When either the words aren't formed correctly, or their order in the sentence doesn't sound right.

The sentence above is wrong (ungrammatical) because "correct" belongs to the category of adjectives and it can't directly modify a verb like "write". Also after modal verbs like "can", we should always use a non-inflected basic form of the verb, and "knows" is at the very least non-standard.

Semantic errors (errors of logic or meaning)

The little whale is eating the purple sky.

Sometimes, sentences are semantically erroneous. They don't make sense! Semantics deals with meaning in language. An utterance may be right grammatically, but make no sense at all. And that would mean it's nonsensical, not ungrammatical.

The sentence above suffers from a category mistake. No matter how hard the little whale tries, it won't be able to eat the sky.

Word Choice

A very important part of semantics is choosing words. A lot of mistakes learners (such as I) make are word choice errors that either fall into the semantic, or morphosyntactic category.

Prime examples are "affect" vs. "effect", and "lose" vs. "loose".

Pragmatic errors

A: How does the food taste?
B: I love playing tennis!

Some exchanges contain neither grammatically nor semantically wrong sentences, but in the whole, don't make sense. That's where pragmatics comes into play; study of use of language in social contexts.

When you ask your friend, Alex, "Do you have five bucks?", you're not actually wondering if your friend has five dollars. You're indirectly requesting five dollars from him. That's not what the semantics of the sentence can tell you, but pragmatics. That sentence was used when you're buying a sandwich, and it doesn't make sense to suddenly wonder whether Alex has five dollars or not when you're buying something, unless you want to borrow that money.

Punctuation, the grayer area

I don't understand what's wrong with this sentence,

Another type of error people mistake for grammatical errors is an obvious error in punctuation. Punctuation has always been the grayer area. There is no one universal standard for punctuation, and punctuation marks as common as commas and semicolons are major sources of conflicts and discussions on these matters.

However, like all of the subjective topics discussed everyday everywhere, despite so much gray areas, there are some rules almost everyone and every manual of style agrees with. The sentence above should not end in a comma, but either a period, or an ellipsis, which not everyone agrees what the sign for should be, by the way.

The most common punctuation error, universally accepted to be an error, is plenken. That is, adding an inappropriate space before the punctuation mark, which does not exist in English.

Further Reading

Next time you see a sentence on ELL that quite doesn't sound right, don't immediately comment it's ungrammatical! Here is a list of fun and informative resources if you wanted to read further:

[1]: Speech errors, Wikipedia
[2]: Common Word Choice Errors, University of Wisconsin Colleges
[3]: Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously
[4]: That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is

  • 5
    Wow, I was just going to write something about syntax vs. semantics, but this is much deeper than anything I could have written. Excellently done. – stangdon Mar 2 '17 at 15:12
  • 7
    +100. This should be a Canonical Post on grammaticality. – StoneyB Mar 2 '17 at 15:36
  • 1
    I find it interesting that in English (as far as I have noticed) people mostly consider spelling to be part of grammar, whereas Germans (at least the way we're taught languages in school) consider them to be separate things (grammar errors are correctly spelled words, but with wrong inflection, word order or type of word). If you add spelling errors to your taxonomy above, then I'd say that lose/loose is a spelling error (because you weren't thinking of releasing something when "loosing a game") whereas affect/effect really is a word choice error because people don't understand the difference. – Martin Ender Mar 2 '17 at 17:32
  • 2
    Another argument for lose/loose not being a word choice error is that when you write "loosing a game" you'd probably still pronounce it as "losing a game" in your head. – Martin Ender Mar 2 '17 at 17:36
  • 3
    +1. BTW, semantic errors are rarely as blatant as little whales eating a purple sky (I realize it was just a very clear example). Even native speakers often make them when they stray beyond their normal working vocabulary when writing. I would burn the thesaurus :) – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 2 '17 at 18:55
4

There are four parts to this question

  • the primary intention of the question, which I think is somewhat hidden, is that there is a tendency to informally call any language error a 'grammatical error'. But this usage is not preferred (i.e. to say "Is this punctuation grammatically correct?" is an error of word choice. Grammar almost always refers to just syntax and word formation - using that word for punctuation or word choice sounds really weird.

  • But the question sets things up by example to expect an answer which enumerates distinct parts of language study (giving an opportunity to label them appropriately, implicitly answering the first part but for other parts of language study). I mostly separate them into the following:

    • phonology - how to produce sounds, both those sounds that just don't exist in your own language, and also that vague idea of 'accent'
    • morphosyntactics - how to arrange or modify words, grammar (all those other things aren't really called grammar)
    • semantics - what you mean by the choice of words or syntax
    • vocabulary - word choice - what you use a dictionary and thesaurus for
    • culture (sociolinguistics) - politeness, expectations, assumptions
    • spelling and punctuation (orthography)

    The point here is that 'wrong' can be applied differently according to the domain a rule lives in. A sentence can be syntactically correct but semantically nonsense, similarly you can string a small set of words together 'you Piano crush above run' and you know unequivocally what to do despite the utter rulelessness of the syntax.

  • This all assumes that there are errors. You might well wonder how one can question the existence of errors given that here on ELL all the questions are about, fixing errors. We all want to get things right. But native fluent speaking is different from non-native learning. And even though there is usually a single standard to follow, there are errors in trying to speak like that standard and then there are 'errors' which are really just

    • variants within the standard (pail vs bucket)
    • acceptable informal versions (defecate vs bowel movement vs poop)
    • alternate varieties of the same named language that are just following a (slightly) different set of rules (just consider the difference between British and American English: 'going to hospital' is wrong, wrong, wrong in AmE, but the way you're supposed to say it in BrE).
    • socially undesirable variants - like using ain't or 'double negatives' or 'f' for 'th'(which is really identical to the previous section, just socially charged)
    • style choices that are enforced formally but are really made up by one guy once and others just started to follow (injunctions against split infinitives, end of sentence prepositions)

    So sometimes there are real errors: "He not is no thief" (no one ever says that), and other times there are 'errors' "He ain't no thief" is OK under very informal circumstances and people do say it, just not in formal circumstances or in writing.

    The point here is that 'wrong' can be applied in different ways, sometimes as really wrong/incorrect/erroneous and sometimes it's just being 'judgy'.

  • And lastly, sometimes you can have a sentence which is 'correct' under all the supposed rules of all the sections mentioned above, but just ... it turns out that no one says it that way. Maybe a language teacher made it up for the third lesson in a beginner's class, or it's how Shakespeare would naturally have said it, or there's some idiom that people tend to use instead. It feels funny to say that it's wrong because no real rules have been broken. It's just too bad because no one talks that way. "long time no see" is 'broken' English but you'd prefer it over the nominally correct "It has been a long time since I have seen you".

(side note: sometimes you can give a sentence which on first sight looks totally ungrammatical, but then with the right situation/context and appropriate intonation/emphasis the sentence is interpretable as grammatical and meaningful. This may be the case, but for language learners, the context is probably not what was meant. If that particular context was meant, well that sentence is gonna sound really weird and should probably be reworded because, my last point, people just don't say it that way.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.