My understanding of acceptability and grammaticality is this: As someone who is able to communicate in a given language I find given sentences that I hear or read more or less acceptable (in terms of grammar) - from "perfectly" via "barely" to "not acceptable at all". Normally, I find the sentences that I generate acceptable (or at least I am aware that and why they are not acceptable). Statistically speaking: The probability of a sentence to be uttered correlates positively with the acceptability of the same sentence: the more acceptable the more likely to be uttered, the less acceptable the less likely to be uttered.

So in my understanding, acceptability belongs to competence, and grammaticality belongs to performance. But in the Wikipedia article on the Acceptability judgment task I read

"The difference between acceptability and grammaticality is linked to the distinction between performance and competence in generative grammar."

From the order of words this suggests that acceptability belongs more to performance and grammaticality to competence - just the other way around.

Is there a mistake in my thinking about acceptability, grammaticality, competence and performance - or in the intention (or my understanding) of the Wikipedia quote?


1 Answer 1


"Acceptability" is about speaker judgments of utterances, whether they "accept" a stimulus. "Grammaticality" is not about speakers, it is about the abstract grammar that describes a language – does the grammar generate the output. However, there is a tendency (more than minor) for linguists to slip from acceptability to grammaticality. Practitioners of generative grammar view linguistic behavior as deriving from abstract grammatical knowledge plus "other factors", hence the competence / performance dichotomy. If speaker responses were an unalloyed product of grammatical competence (simply consulting the grammar and seeing if the string in question can be generated), acceptability judgments would be perfect indicators of the nature of the grammar. But that is not how it is.

  • speaker judgments? Or the judgments of others about one's speech?. I don't generally go around judging my own speech. Does the grammar generate the output? Sorry, that just sounds like GIGO to my ears.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 18:17

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