What is the difference, if any, between "ungrammatical" and "infelicitous" as linguistic terms?

I haven't had much luck finding an answer to this question on the 'net. We all know that a phrase or sentences is ungrammatical if it violates the morpho-syntactic rules of a given language. So "I play ball," is grammatical but "*Me play ball," is ungrammatical in General Western English.

I'm betting that "*Me play ball," could also be called "infelicitous" in General Western English.

So, in linguistic terminology, are the terms "infelicitous" and "ungrammatical" synonymous? Or is the term "infelicitous" a more general term, encompassing the violation of more than just morpho-syntactic rules?


My understanding of "infelicitous" and "ungrammatical" are that they describe two entirely separate situations. Your definition of ungrammaticality is sound- something that violates syntactic or morpho-syntactic rules is ungrammatical. However, in my experience "infelicitous" is used in the study of pragmatics to describe an utterance that is grammatical but cannot occur.

The term is used to describe performative speech acts- sentences that cause actions to occur ('I christen this child "Jim,"' or "I sentence you to death'). Each utterance has felicity conditions, or situations that must be true in order for the utterance to be true and have the effect the speaker wanted. In the case of "I sentence you to death," the speaker must be a judge, in a courtroom, somewhere that has the death penalty, talking to a criminal.

If any of these conditions are not true, the statement is infelicitous and has no effect. So, if a judge were, say, at the movies and someone was talking very loudly, the judge could say "I sentence you to death," but it wouldn't work. The felicity conditions of being in a courtroom and talking to a criminal have been violated. No one would say that the sentence "I sentence you to death," is ungrammatical, but it is infelicitous because it cannot succeed under the given conditions.

  • Right! This is basically about Speech Acts and its felicity conditions. – Alenanno Aug 16 '13 at 11:10

in my idea, these two concepts are different from each other. As Corder (1971a) cited, there are instances where a language user produces a form that is grammatical,(i.e. conforms to the norms of the code) but this may not be the form preferred by native speakers of the code.

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