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This happens a lot when learning a foreign language: You learn some grammar structure, and insert some nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., in the appropriate places, only to find out that no-one would ever say what you've come up with.

It's not wrong, it's just unused, and as a result sounds unnatural and weird.

Question: Is there a linguistics term meaning "it's grammatically correct, but nobody says that"?

I find myself saying this phrase a lot, and I feel like there should be a technical term with this meaning.


As a concrete example, there's an escalator sticker in China which says:

We've already stepped on this area.

It turns out such stickers were added after an accident, and these stickers are everywhere now, aiming to reassure customers that it is safe to walk there. I believe the above sentence is grammatically correct, and even means exactly what they intended---they have indeed already stepped on that area. But realistically, a native-English speaker would probably write something like:

This area is safe to walk on.

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    Can you give a few concrete examples? – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 27 at 17:36
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    Maybe “he had had ten pages to type and has completed all ten in three days.” – Number File Jan 28 at 0:18
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    Japanese people often ask my what’s the “natural” way to say things in English. Speakers of languages very different to English seem to be aware that they’re doing this (as it often happens in this case). – Tom Kelly Jan 28 at 9:09
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    Reminds me what my teacher once said to me when I asked "If I say it like this, won't they understand?" To which she said, "They will understand. But they will also understand that you don't really speak the language." – Tasos Papastylianou Jan 29 at 20:12
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    That seems like a strange example, I think because it's perfectly natural, but doesn't make sense in context. I was expecting something that makes sense semantically but is unnatural, for example you could translate the French "Nous embauchons" literally as "We hire", but it should be "We are hiring". – wjandrea Jan 30 at 4:18
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I think the common term would be non-idiomatic, idiomatic here not referring to idioms like "kick the bucket", but to the natural ways a language is spoken.

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    Personally, I say unidiomatic, not non-idiomatic. Not sure if that's unidiomatic or not. – Wilson Jan 27 at 14:20
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    I agree that "idiomatic" (with your choice of negative indicator) is what you're looking for. In highly technical contexts, you might see "unattested" or "not observed" to mean that an observer or researcher has not seen something in real-world use. – CCTO Jan 27 at 15:42
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    @Lorendiac True in the case you've given, but not every non-idiomatic expression is old-fashioned. Some of them may have never been idiomatic. – Daniel Jan 27 at 19:02
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    "non-idiomatic" is the term I always hear. Another common one is "unnatural" – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jan 27 at 19:57
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    @Wilson en.wiktionary.org/wiki/idiomatic - Antonyms: nonidiomatic, unidiomatic. – CJ Dennis Jan 28 at 22:55
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In pragmatics, if an utterance is syntactically well-formed and makes sense but cannot occur then it is called infelicitous. Unacceptability judgments are broader as it may include semantic incoherence:

  1. The true circle with four sides in my backyard creeps me out.
  2. Colorless green dreams sleep furiously.

Unacceptability judgments may also include infelicitous or ungrammatical statements (this can be problematic in poorly designed elicited response tasks). So I do not think it is exactly the phenomena the OP is targeting. Non-idiomatic may also capture some cases of "nobody says that" but if the utterance never occurs for pragmatic reasons I would suggest infelicitously is the linguistic property you are trying to identify.

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    There is nothing wrong with "I squared the circle". It is mathematically impossible to do with just a straight edge and a compass (turn a circle into a square with the same area), but it is not a weird sentence in itself. – CJ Dennis Jan 28 at 22:52
  • You could also draw a square grid inside a circle, according to Merriam-Webster's 6th verb definition. Note that "I circled the square" is just fine - you drew a circle around a square. Maybe you also want to test that the surface of a wooden circle is perpendicular to the side (verb definition 1b). – user253751 Jan 29 at 13:16
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    It does seem really odd to use "I squared the circle" as an example here, as this phrase is sufficiently idiomatic to have its own Wikipedia page, and an extensive history, reaching back to the ancient Greeks: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squaring_the_circle – Michael MacAskill Jan 29 at 22:37
  • Maybe in g4vagai's native language, "squaring the circle" is nonsensical :) – user253751 Jan 30 at 18:07
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    In some contexts, "I squared the circle" could be felicitous. Suppose someone thinks that some task can't be done, and terms it "squaring the circle", then someone does it. The latter might then say "I squared the circle". The phrase is used metaphorically in this way. – Rosie F Feb 3 at 16:16
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You might also be looking for unacceptable, if you're thinking of sentences like Chomsky's famous "colorless green ideas sleep furiously".

Specifically (at least according to a long-ago undergraduate semantics class), an utterance is unacceptable if it's perfectly grammatical, and yet no native speaker would ever say that as part of a conversation: it's correct from the syntactic level downward, but something's wrong with it semantically or pragmatically. These utterances are often marked with a hash sign (#), while ungrammatical ones are marked with a star (*).

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    Is 'unacceptable' here used as a linguistical buzzword or as in its general sense? If the later, I don't quite see it fitting OP's desired use. – William Jan 27 at 8:13
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    I think phrases such as this one are probably more usefully called "nonsense" or "meaningless". – Dancrumb Jan 27 at 13:37
  • @William I learned it as a specific term, but I don't know how widespread that usage is outside of semantics classes. – Draconis Jan 27 at 15:18
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    I don't think the question is about semantically invalid sentences. Chomsky's example doesn't make sense in any language, despite being syntactically correct. I think the question is about syntactically correct sentences that do make sense, but are just not expressed in a way a native speaker would express them. – Daniel Jan 27 at 19:04
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    @IMSoP I'm not convinced there's much wrong with calling an idea green. I think certain ideas for dealing with climate change could certainly be green ideas. Also how your mood can be blue. This may not be able to done with all the examples.. or at least not today. But it seems like totally valid language once we attribute some meaning to that combination of words – Cruncher Jan 27 at 19:28
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If I understand your question correctly, it's about the use of lexemes that co-occur with other lexemes (cf. "'make a decision", which would be "take a decision" in French, for example). This phenomenon is called "collocation". So in this case you might say that the literal translation of "make a decision" is an unavailable collocation in French. Native speakers would obviously consider it "wrong".

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    We can "take" a decision in English, too ... – Will Crawford Jan 28 at 1:30
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    And welcome, by the way. – Will Crawford Jan 28 at 1:31
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    Thanks @WillCrawford. Not being a native speaker, I was not aware of the use of "take" in this collocation (which according to the answers to another post here seems to be less frequent and slightly restricted). – Nico Jan 28 at 13:31
  • It's most often used in the past tense, and particularly (it seems to me) when explaining / justifying things, e.g. In the circumstances, I took the decision to ... or That decision was taken when I ... [insert justification here]. I would more commonly use make in the present tense e.g. You have to make a decision. Neither is ever wrong, but to some people's ears a different choice will sound "more right" due to what they grew up reading or hearing, etc. – Will Crawford Jan 28 at 15:04
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    According to another thread here that I can't retrieve right now, "take a decision" sounds more formal or specialized to some users (political and economic contexts). – Nico Jan 28 at 15:14
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This article gives several examples, but it is not otherwise helpful in answering your question. First, calling these examples "Indianisms" can be considered ethnically offensive, even though Indian people I have met are well aware of these locutions and have a great sense of humor about them. Second, more broadly, to categorize such sayings according to who says them does not fulfill your request for a single linguistic term.

Perhaps there is no such term. Note that this article says there are three factors in a verbal communication:

  1. Locution--the semantic or literal significance of the utterance
  2. Illocution--the intention of the speaker; and
  3. Perlocution--how it was received by the listener.

What you describe is a disconnect between those three parts. The listener may understand the communication in a general way, or he may be baffled.

Call it a "locutionary breakdown" if you will.

"What we have here is ... failure to communicate."

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  • Welcome, and thank you for the Cool Hand Luke reference. – Will Crawford Jan 28 at 1:34
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This revised version of your question with a concrete example helps me understand it better. This phenomenon is not related to semantics, as I initially thought, but rather to pragmatics. In this specific case, the difference lies in information packaging, which to some extent might be language-specific due to different cultures. The instance you quote shows that the Chinese sentence requires an inferential effort due to the ellipsis of a conclusion along the lines of "so you can do it too and feel safe", whereas the English version is more straightforward and, interestingly, less focused on empathy (Chinese implies: "I have done it before, I can understand your fear, but don't worry"). Focusing on your initial question, this difference cannot be captured by the labels that have been proposed so far in my opinion.

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  • For the title I kept thinking archaic. But what we have here was lost in translation. – Mazura Jan 29 at 19:27
  • I suspect that the missing part is not a conclusion, but rather the implied question “Is it safe to walk on this? Are you sure? I heard there was an accident…”. Your I think you're absolutely right about the cultural difference, though - much more empathy comes across. [+1] – Will Crawford Jan 30 at 9:48
  • I agree that there must have been a previous hesitation on the part of the addressee (be it verbalized or suggested by non-verbal signals). However, this is also thoroughly compatible with the omitted conclusion that I was positing on the part of the utterer. – Nico Jan 30 at 11:47
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Just as further evidence of the multiplicity of linguistic terms... I've always heard/used “stylistically marked.”

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