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?

3 Answers 3


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
    Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 11:10

So, in linguistic terminology, are the terms "infelicitous" and "ungrammatical" synonymous?

The answer is no.

        The focus on acceptability vs. unacceptability also led to a more nuanced understanding of what these concepts mean. The most widespread view, proposed originally in Chomsky (1965), is that (un)acceptability may be influenced by a variety of factors, of which (un)grammaticality is only one. Under this view, then, "acceptability" and "grammaticality" are not syno-nyms [emphasis mine], in that a sentence that is well-formed according to principles of the grammar, for instance, may turn out to be unacceptable due to parsing difficulties, etc. Both concepts are presumably gradient (i.e. acceptability and grammaticality are both "a matter of degree," in Chomsky's (1965) terms), but only acceptability is perceived directly. Grammaticality, like the other factors that contribute to acceptability, can only be inferred based on the evidence available.

The Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Syntax 2021, p. 8.

Or is the term "infelicitous" a more general term, encompassing the violation of more than just morpho-syntactic rules?

The other way around. "ungrammatical" is more general. "infelicitous" encompasses the violation of more than just morpho-syntactic rules.

For some there can be no acceptability without grammaticality. In other words, grammaticality is a prerequisite for acceptability: 'An acceptable utterance is one that has been, or might be, produced by a native speaker in some appropriate context and is, or would be, accepted by other native speakers as belonging to the language in question' (Lyons, 1968: 137). The part of Lyons's definition that refers to the utterance 'belonging to the language in question' appeals to grammaticality. This relationship between acceptabil- ity and grammaticality recurs in his later work: 'an ungrammatical utterance is one that a native speaker can not only recognise as unacceptable, but can also correct' (Lyons, 1977: 380). As shown in the previous paragraph, corrigibility is the criterion for gram- maticality, whereas de facto use and unproblematicity are the tests for establishing acceptability.         To decide on the acceptability of a piece of language we refer not to rules, but to contexts, trying to contextualize the utterance in question. Try it for yourself. Can you think of a context where the following could be said?: Pele (the Brazilian footballer) wore a green dress. Yes, if he were taking part in the Rio carnival celebra- tions. But the learner who said this was referring to the context where Pele was playing football, and by 'dress' meant 'shirt' or 'strip'. So this is an error of acceptability. Or can you think of con-texts where I came to London last summer to study the English would be acceptable? The first question is whether the speaker was an anthropologist studying the English people or a linguist. The sec- ond problem is one of location deixis. It is acceptable if spoken when the speaker is back in London, on a subsequent visit, or (strangely) if the speaker is outside London but speaking on the phone or writing to someone who is now in London. It would be quite unacceptable if spoken to a listener outside London, and even more so if the addressee was not from London or Britain. Real and imagined contexts raise the degree of acceptability of doubtful sentences, but judgements about the grammaticality of a sentence have to be made in the face of the sentence in isolation, not in a context. For this reason, to decide whether something is acceptable, even when it satisfies the grammaticality test, is sel- dom clear-cut and takes some thought, even imagination. Pro- fessor Willy Haas (p.c.) told of the time when the ungrammatical and thitherto unacceptable Quadruplicity drinks Procrastination sud- denly became acceptable when he saw in a newspaper a photograph of the 'Big Four' statesmen — Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and De Gaulle — assembled to drink a victory toast at the end of World War 11.

Carl James, Errors in Language Learning and Use 2013, pages 67n8.

        It is important to bear in mind that the notions of acceptability and grammaticality are not exactly the same, since factors not directly related to the grammar itself can also affect acceptability. For example, a native speaker might consider a sentence unacceptable because it contains a word that the speaker finds obscene or offensive, or because the sentence is so long they forget how it began, or because the sentence is ambiguous in a way that might be confusing. In such cases, the speaker’s judgments about acceptability may not be a fully reliable indicator of grammaticality. Thus, native speakers’ intuitions provide only indirect evidence about whether a sentence is grammatical. Since there is no more direct way of finding out whether a sentence is grammatical, linguists generally rely on speakers’ intuitions about acceptability, despite these limitations.

Victoria Fromkin, An Introduction to Linguistic Theory (2000), page 19.

But even linguists mix up these two terms!

       However, in the linguistics literature as well as the second language literature, Copyright( these two terms are often used without a careful consideration of their differences. This is the case even for those who, as Myers (2009a) notes, "should know better" (p. 412). For instance, Schütze succumbs to this temptation in his classic 1996 book on this topic. "Perhaps more accurate terms for grammaticality judgments would be grammaticality sensations and linguistic reactions. Nonetheless, for the sake of familiarity I shall continue using traditional terminology, on the understanding that it must not be taken literally" (p. 52). Nearly 20 years after Schütze's important book on the topic, Schütze and Sprouse (2013) acknowledge the inappropriateness of the term grammaticality judgment:

Speakers' reactions to sentences have traditionally been referred to as grammaticality judgments, but this term is misleading. Since a grammar is a mental construct not accessible to conscious awareness, speakers cannot have any impressions about the status of a sentence with respect to that grammar; rather, in Chomsky's (1965) terms, one should say their reactions concern acceptability, that is, the extent to which the sentence sounds "good" or "bad" to them. Acceptability judgments (as we refer to them henceforth) involve explicitly asking speakers to "judge" (i.e. report their spontaneous reaction concerning) whether a particular string of words is a possible utterance of their language, with an intended interpretation either implied or explicitly stated. (pp. 27-28)

Patti Spinner, Using Judgments in Second Language Acquisition Research 2019. Anyone know the page number?


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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