I'm posting this on meta because I think it's POB and more of a discussion of site behavior than on the actual usage of the word.

Frequently on this site, the word grammatical is used to mean correctly used.

Does grammatical actually mean this?

Well formed; in accordance with the rules of the grammar of a language.

My understanding is that the word means proper grammar has been applied. i.e. That proper case, tense, punctuation, etc. has been employed. Not necessarily that the words are being used correctly.

Where does the line between grammar and word-choice lie? The example question that led me to my question was this. Would the usage of the word good instead of the word well be an example of ungrammatical or improper usage?

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    I have noticed that the meaning of "grammatical" is something that descriptivists tend to be quite prescriptive about. But prescriptions vary.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 16:40
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    As a physician I tend to be prescriptive ... But less so about language as I age ...
    – David M
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 16:42
  • Can you be more explicit about where you think there is overlap between 'grammatical' and 'correct' (and where they don't overlap)?
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:02
  • @Mitch I am referring to the difference between grammatical and usage. For example, the buffalo sentence is grammatical, but the usage is questionable at best. Yet, people on the site use the word grammatical to describe usage.
    – David M
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:31
  • To be fair, I think some of the comments using the word grammatical might have been edited to the word usage. But, my question stands, so I've edited it.
    – David M
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:39
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    We had a similar problem with the meaning of the term “idiomatic”.
    – user 66974
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 19:39
  • Of possible interest: english.stackexchange.com/tags/grammar/info Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 11:40
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    @marcellothearcane I tagged comments because my original draft was more in reference to people's behavior in comments on a specific question
    – David M
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 13:23
  • You might want to read an intro chapter of an intro linguistics text. Grammatical and correct are mostly the same idea but you're asking about a distinction that requires a more specific details about what you want.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 14:34
  • As a physician, you might appreciate the analogy, but I feel as if I have lanced a boil, and left a festering wound. I'm sorry. It was never my intention. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 18:58
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    @Cascabel No worries. Your question was good. It just left me with questions about the way people are answering
    – David M
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 19:01
  • usage determines grammaticality Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 9:46

1 Answer 1


Grammar = Morphology + Syntax

Grammar refers to either of these two things:

  1. How to fit together elements of meaning smaller than a single word.
  2. How to fit together elements of meaning larger than a single word.

The sub-lexical constituent components referred to by the first category are the language’s morphemes, and so this part of a language’s grammar we call its morphology. It’s how to fit little pieces of words together to create individual words.

  • Think thou, thee, thy, thine, thyself and be, am, art, is, are, was, wert, were and see, sees, saw, seeing, seen, foresee, unsee, unforeseen, unforeseeable, unforeseeably and unreflected, infelicitate, disadvantaged, irredeemability, antiretroviral.

The super-lexical constituent components referred to by the second category are the language’s syntactic constituents, often multiword phrases that together act like a single thing within a larger hierarchical structure, and so this part of a language’s grammar we call its syntax.

  • Think about the difference between
    The dog bit the man
    The man bit the dog
    The man bit the dog that bit the cat that bit the mouse that scared the man the dog bit.

Grammar isn’t about accent, or spacing, or choice of font, or spelling, or the color of text, or capitalization, or indentation, or anything else that a blind illiterate cannot say and hear.

Grammar is about how the real language — the spoken one — fits together, not about whether your boarding school’s penmanship teacher approves of how you write that cursive 𝓋 in your full name’s signature.

Famous examples of puzzling yet perfectly grammatical sentences include everything from:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.


And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

And many more besides.

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    And syntax does not cover malapropisms, because even when the wrong word is used it's generally not syntactically wrong. Using the wrong preposition in a sentence can dramatically affect its meaning, yet be syntactically/grammatically correct. However, a clarification would be welcome about whether the difference between flammable, inflammable and non-flammable is one of morphology and therefore grammar. (I'm not convinced it is.)
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 7:08
  • The man bit the dog that bit the cat that bit the mouse that scared the man the dog bit that sat in the house that Jack built. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 11:31
  • To your admirable answer, I would just add the detail that grammar (2)/syntax deals with series of words or series of items larger than words (i.e. phrases) limited to one sentence. In other words it excludes any kind of discourse relations. Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 1:14
  • @Araucaria That's certainly true. I started off with the premise that grammar is about arranging little bits to make words and arranging words into phrases, and those larger pieces that you arrange into sentences. I never meant for it to be anything larger than sentences. In a certain sense, you might call grammar “the rules of arrangement” punning after the military’s rules of engagement.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 1:32
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    The phrase "the real language — the spoken one" irks me a little. Written language is language. It may have been derived from the spoken language, nevertheless one should not dismiss it entirely. Just as sign language is a language, so written English is a language. It has rules of syntax and morphology (much of which are very similar to the spoken language) but it also has features that a spoken language couldn't have. In the past, grammarians have ignored the spoken and concentrated entirely on the written. You seem to be making a similar error if you ignore the written entirely.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 20:00
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    Sign languages can be real languages -- ASL is a good example. But they can be codes, too, like Signed English, which is sort of like writing because it uses English words but not in speech. "Written language" is just a transcription of spoken language, and not a very good one, at that, since it lacks most of language's variability and force. It's certainly language-related, and quite interesting, but it's not language per se, just another shadow in the cave. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 21:44

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