Where does the * sign of ungrammaticality come from? Was there any reason for choosing exactly this sign?

  • It derives from the related usage in historical linguistics, to indicate a hypothetical (not attested) form.
    – user6726
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 16:11

2 Answers 2



From Arnold Zwicky's Blog:The stigma of ungrammaticality:

On the Stanford linguistics newsletter site (the Sesquipedalian) yesterday, Arto Anttila asked who was the first person to use the asterisk to mean ungrammaticality:

This question was brought up in the Foundations of Linguistic Theory class on Friday… I have been able to confirm that * was used to mean ungrammaticality as early as in 1963 by R. B. Lees and E. S. Klima in their article ‘Rules for English Pronominalization’, Language 39(1), 17-28. The relevant sentence is on p. 18:

(8) *I see himself.

The example is followed by a long footnote where Lees and Klima patiently explain what * means. They cite no precedents. These facts together strongly suggest that one of them is the originator of the notation. But we may never know which. Lees passed away in 1996 and Klima in 2008.

… Thanks to Martin Kay for asking the question and to Paul Postal for suggesting the answer.

Beth Levin checked Lees’s The Grammar of English Nominalizations (1960) and found that it has asterisks of ungrammaticality in it, starting on p. 7, where an asterisked example is given without comment. ... [skipped] ...

  • 1
    That's a bit surprising a claim. Postal in his 1962 dissertation uses * for ungrammatical sentences, e.g. p9
    – user6726
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 22:33
  • @user6726 The quote is just part of the text, have you followed the link? There are also users' comments at the bottom. In a nutshell - the use of the asterisk in this sense was an established practice by the end of 1950s...
    – tum_
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 6:13
  • That was a fun read, thank you. From blog comments, looks like Householder 1958 (Zwicky wrote: "[A note from] Fritz Newmeyer in e-mail: Fred Householder takes credit for the asterisk of ungrammaticality, or at least its spread: Householder, F. W. (1973). On arguments from asterisks. Foundations of Language, 10, 365-376. See page 366. He sort of implies that he devised it at the 1958 institute and that’s where Lees got it from.")
    – jgreve
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 2:24

I recall seeing asterisk used to mean, approximately, "hypothetical but non-occurring" in Hendrik Poutsma's A Grammar of Late Modern English, published early in the 20th century. (It is one of the three great traditional grammars of English.)

Poutsma does not explain his usage. I gathered from the context that he is using asterisk in the way a modern grammarian would.

  • Available on the Net. This one?
    – tum_
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 16:05
  • @A.Toumantsev, Yes, that book, but not necessarily Part 2.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 16:07

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