Someone used this term in conversation with me, and I googled it expecting to find a wikipedia article or a link to some dictionary of linguistics. However, nothing of that sort popped up.

Does the term refer to any sort of grammatical error, or to a subset of errors? If the latter, what subset?

  • 2
    (In)felicity is about pragmatics, grammaticality is about morphosyntax. See also linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/4196/445
    – Alex B.
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 15:16
  • 1
    Any sentence can be described as (un)grammatical, (un)acceptable, (un)parsable, and (in)felicitous.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 15:24
  • @AlexB. Could you please refer me to a text that provides a good account of this quadripartite distinction? I tried googling the terms, but that didn't produce a link to any suitable-looking source. Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 2:46
  • you can read about this in any intro textbook on (generative) syntax, e.g. in Haegeman or Adger.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Sep 29, 2013 at 1:43

2 Answers 2


Matthewson 2004's paper on semantic fieldwork distinguishes three kinds of judgements:

  1. grammaticality judgements (i.e., syntactic/morphological well-formedness),
  2. truth-value judgements (i.e., true or false in a given context), and
  3. felicity judgements (i.e., acceptable or not acceptable in a given context).

The discussion of (in)felicity judgements suggests that they deal with a speaker's failure to make sure the context satisfies either

(i) (lexically-encoded) presuppositions, or

(ii) Gricean Maxim-induced implicatures.

For instance, she uses the following example to contrast truth-value judgements from felicity judgements.

(1) Context: Two cats are in the room, and they are both asleep.

a. The cats are awake. b. The cat is asleep.

(1a) is FALSE, because the cats are both asleep. (1b) is INFELICITOUS because 'the' presupposes something like: the entity referred to is the maximal entity that satisfies the NP restriction in the context, and the maximal entity in the context is both cats, not a single cat

An example of infelicity via failure to satisfy Gricean Maxims would be something like (c):

c. One of the cats is asleep.

(1c) is TRUE, but INFELICITOUS because it implicates that the other cat is awake, and this violates the Maxim of Quantity.

If you consider presuppositions to be grammatically encoded (which I think is the standard view, eg., Heim 1983), then instances of infelicity via presupposition failure would be considered a subset of the 'grammatical errors.'

Similarly, if you consider implicatures to be grammatically encoded (not the standard view, but cf. Chierchia, Fox and Spector 2008 on 'scalar implicatures'), then instances of infelicity via Gricean-violations would also be a subset of 'grammatical errors.'

  • Very nice answer. The final two paragraphs especially make it clear to what extent classifying a judgement as being about 'grammaticality' or 'felicity' is quite often completely theory-dependent.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Sep 29, 2013 at 22:47
  • user177, did you mean to say that Matthewson 2004 and Heim 1983 have diametrically opposite views on the encoding of presuppositions? cf. "(i) (lexically-encoded) presuppositions" and "if you consider presuppositions to be grammatically encoded (which I think is the standard view, eg., Heim 1983)?"
    – Alex B.
    Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 14:41
  • 1
    @Alex B, no, I didn't mean to say that. I tend to view lexically encoded things (along with things encoded by syntactic structure) as part of grammar - so the meanings they convey are grammatically encoded. I contrast that with meaning derived solely from context (as per the standard view re: implicatures)
    – user177
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 3:58

A sentence is infelicitous when it's grammatical but nonsensical. See, for example, Chomsky's famous 'colourless green ideas sleep furiously' - there's nothing wrong with the sentence on a grammatical level, but actually attempting to turn it into useful information fails nonetheless. If ungrammaticality is a grammatical problem, infelicity is a semantic problem.

  • 5
    Actually, felicity is a pragmatic term, not semantics. It come from speech act theory, which deals with requests, orders, promises, etc, for which true -- the usual logical property -- makes no sense; Go to your room! can't be either true or false. Statements can be true or false, and other speech acts can be felicitous. I.e, truth is a felicity condition for statements, but not for orders, which have other felicity conditions. Generally speaking, though, grammatical is not used with (in)felicity in a technical sense.
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 20:10
  • 2
    It seems that none of the felicity conditions relate to grammar. Is it correct to say that 'grammatical infelicity' is therefore a term that doesn't really make sense? Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 21:52
  • 1
    I personally struggle to understand what "grammatical felicity" could be. Where did you hear? Why not ask that person?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 23:53
  • 1
    @AlexB. I have no way to get back in touch with that person. "Grammatical infelicity" gets 1150 hits on google, which is enough to suggest it's not idiosyncratic to the person I met, and sufficiently small for me to believe it might well just be a erroneous mixing of linguistic terms. Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 2:41
  • 2
    If you understand the term "grammar" in the broad sense (i.e. as covering the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, etc.), then "grammatical felicity" makes sense. From the viewpoint of syntactocentrism, "felicity" isn't a term defined in the domain of grammar. I think that most linguists would simply say well-formed (about syntactic acceptability) or felicitous (about semantic/pragmatic acceptability). To conclude, the adjective "grammatical" is superfluous.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 0:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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