This question arises from a suggestion by FumbleFingers that I post it here for comment.

Briefly, some of the questions asked at EL&U SE are overly simple and could be handled by a routine Google search. Others are, while seemingly simple, deceptively complex - like this one about "irony vs sarcasm."

And, in answering some of the more difficult queries, elements of the language of linguistics and linguistic philosophy may be useful, as these fields of study are explicitly designed to explore such questions.

Recently, I used the terms "happy" and "unhappy" to describe the state of various utterances and was not clearly understood. I am of a mind to forward these terms to the community for consideration because I'd like to popularize their use; however, if the consensus is that they are not useful, then I'll withdraw my efforts at advocating for them.

To say that a construction is "happy" means that it is well-formed and appropriate for the purpose to which it is employed.

If a construction is "unhappy," it is failing in some aspect such that it does not succeed. There are types and classes of unhappiness, namely:

  1. Misfires: Externally Unhappy Utterances.
    • a. Misinvocations: appropriate act fails conventional criteria.
    • b. Non-Plays: no appropriate convention.
    • c. Misapplications: convention misapplied.
    • d. Misexecutions: appropriate act rendered defective.
    • e. Flaws: conventional procedure partly rejected.
    • f. Hitches: conventional procedure not completed.
  2. Abuses: Internally Unhappy Utterances.
    • a. Insincerities: appropriate intention(s) absent.
    • b. Non-Fulfillments: intention(s) not fully carried out.

This extended taxonomy is well beyond what most users would want or need to know, but I'm adding it here for the expert reader to more fully describe the ways in which a statement might be "unhappy." In my view, to say that an utterance is "wrong" or "incorrect" can be at times overly blunt.

Rather, to say that an expression is "unhappy" is a more nuanced description that something is wrong with it, either in construction or idiom, or that it fails to execute a performative utterance.

This terminology was initially popularized by JL Austin, in How to Do Things With Words, and further developed by John Searle in Speech Acts and other works. Here's a nice paper by Kevin Halion that devotes a chapter to "Speech Acts and Their Happiness."

To sum up, this kind of terminology allows for much greater precision in the discussion of language and it is usually self-explanatory through context. I am not suggesting that we use the language of linguistics wholesale, but merely that happiness and unhappiness are exceptionally powerful terms worth community consideration.

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    Rather than post another Answer for the sake of it, I'll just say I'm all for this - if we can find a way to make it work without being confusing to the non-cognoscenti. May 24, 2011 at 18:46
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    @FumbleFingers: It already has this incognoscente, i.e. me, confused! May 25, 2011 at 3:30
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    @Cerberus: Well I guess if even you find this use of happy/unhappy confusing it's probably dead in the water. I quite like the terms when I'm expecting them, because of the way they seem to shift 'linguistic correctness' away from external judgement by (sometimes) pedants. If some word sits well in a given context, I'm happy for the word itself to be 'happy'. But for most people here (esp. non-native speakers) I think it would just be a confusing distraction. EL&U has enough trouble already when trying to agree on the dividing line between acceptable/unacceptable utterances. May 25, 2011 at 13:29
  • @FumbleFingers: My problem is mostly that I do not find these terms at all obvious: without further explanation, or perhaps examples, I do not understand these distinctions at all, valuable though they may be. If the meanings of these terms should be easy to understand and remember, and useful, I could be persuaded to make an effort to learn them, though. But this list, as it stands, doesn't work for me yet. Again, I do encourage and appreciate Raven's approach, differentiating judgements of style both internally and from "grammaticality". May 25, 2011 at 14:06
  • @Cerberus: I think we agree re the issue in hand then. Potentially useful terminology, but because it's 'opaque' to many, we shouldn't use it without in-line clarification. We're mostly quite capable of saying what we mean without specialised vocabulary, and we don't want EL&U to become a 'closed [talking-]shop'. May 25, 2011 at 14:42
  • @FumbleFingers As the Italians would say: se non è vero, è ben trovato, that is aproximately, "If it's not true, at least it sounds good!"
    – Conrado
    Jun 12, 2020 at 19:42

4 Answers 4


Interestingly, the terms I have usually heard used for this purpose are felicitous and infelicitous, marking a slightly different boundary than grammatical and ungrammatical. Whereas something might be grammatical in that it doesn’t violate any constitutive correctness conditions of the grammar it could be described as infelicitous if an average speaker might object it for one reason or another.

For example, whereas All her friends and relatives had supported Ann throughout the ordeal is a grammatical sentence, Her husband had supported Ann throughout the ordeal, while constructed the same way, might be described as infelicitous.

Of course, the word felicitous derives from Latin felix, meaning “happy”.

  • Right. "Felicitous" often arises in the literature beside these terms. It's very common to see something like, "Here, X is happy, or felicitous," etc.
    – The Raven
    May 24, 2011 at 6:01
  • This link says there's a subtle difference between linguistic happy and felicitous, but it doesn't expand on the details. More research needed, I feel... e-anglais.com/thesis.html#chap2 May 24, 2011 at 18:35
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    +1 Between unhappy and infelicitous, I prefer infelicitous, because it is a commonly used term that would be intelligible to most people. This does not apply to unhappy, which seems to be a bit too specialized or obscure in this sense. Moreover, I consider this usage of unhappy somewhat infelicitous, i.e. I find it a bit ugly. May 25, 2011 at 3:25
  • Another term used for this kind of discussion is "unfortunate."
    – The Raven
    May 25, 2011 at 13:33
  • +1 for excellent example of an infelicitous utterance. I know I don't like the second sentence, but I can't for the life of me say exactly why. Reading it straight after the first, I got suckered into thinking it was ok. Then I thought "Hang on..." In programming nowadays they often say potentially dodgy code smells. The difference is, they can usually say why. May 25, 2011 at 13:41
  • Strangely, I don't get any weird vibes from the second sentence. Rather, the first sounds more awkward to me.
    – MrHen
    May 25, 2011 at 15:16

How is a vague wishy-washy term like unhappy, which doesn't sound like it has anything to do with language or grammar, supposed to allow "greater precision in the discussion of language"? I think systematizing something like this would be a bad idea. Call a spade a spade: if it's incorrect, say so. If it's not grammatical, say so.

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    But @The Raven is quite correct to say this is a term used by linguists. I think first met it in Steven Pinker (the techie book on irregular verbs, not his 'pop linguistics' blockbusters). He's not keen on prescriptivists anyway, and partly for that reason I assume that unhappy doesn't necessarily mean incorrect. It means arguably incorrect, or incorrect according to some people. I think @The Raven's proposal is a great idea if we can find a way to make it work. Much better than arguing about the difference between incorrect and non-standard, but maybe tolerable. May 24, 2011 at 18:30

As an alternative, here are some of the euphemisms I use:

  • not stylistically pleasing
  • advised against by style books
  • somehow less attractive
  • not generally preferred
  • frowned upon by some pedants
  • anacoluthon

These usually do not antagonize askers, or so I believe. Sir Humphrey might add complicated, courageous, or just novel.

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    As with @The Raven, I still don't accept that unhappy is a euphemism. But that's splitting hairs. I'm now convinced your alternatives (with the exception of anacoluthon unless it's defined at point of use) are better than introducing unfamiliar usages. May 25, 2011 at 13:51

This extended taxonomy is well beyond what most users would want or need to know, but I'm adding it here for the expert reader to more fully describe the ways in which a statement might be "unhappy." In my view, to say that an utterance is "wrong" or "incorrect" can be at times overly blunt.

So... "unhappy" is a euphemism? I guess I don't understand why we should use euphemisms when describing an issue with a sentence when that is the entire reason they are asking us. Having a secret set of terms that means something only to us is bad.

I am not much of a true linguist, so if these are well accepted and used terms in the field, okay. Thanks for the head's up. I am still a little hesitant in using them, however.

  • I think euphemism is OP's own word. My understanding is the linguistic usage expands the category of 'imperfect' utterances to include things that aren't totally incorrect, but aren't exactly well-formed either. The big problem, as you say, is that it's effectively 'jargon'. With the added downside that these words are well-known with their more common meanings. But I still like them. May 24, 2011 at 18:43
  • So... it isn't a euphemism?
    – MrHen
    May 24, 2011 at 18:46
  • Umm - not in my opinion, and certainly not the way I'd like to use it. And on checking I see OP didn't actually use that word. I'd like to think when he said blunt he meant blunt instrument. For me, an unhappy utterance needn't be 'clinically depressed' - it's just not in an ideal state. May 24, 2011 at 19:04
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    No, these are not euphemisms at all. This terminology was applied out of necessity. The standard "right" and "wrong" are too binary to encapture the reality of language as we attempt to describe it, in the kind of detail at which technicians operate. After all, when you say you are "happy" or "unhappy," you allow for shades or degrees of meaning within those parameters. As given in the question as posted, you can see that "wrong" statements can be wrong in a number of ways. This terminology allows us to shade our judgements with greater precision.
    – The Raven
    May 25, 2011 at 2:24
  • @The Raven: Ah, I see. Thank you.
    – MrHen
    May 25, 2011 at 15:14

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