Many questions have these words tossed around:

good / bad
valid / invalid
right / wrong
grammatical / ungrammatical
correct / mistake
standard / non-standard
accepted / not accepted
acceptable / not acceptable
common / uncommon
rules / guidelines

These words seem to have different meanings in various circles. There are nuances there that can cause conflict and confusion. Without context, one could ask "acceptable where?" and so on.

I've seen this manifest in several questions, most recently one about direct object "it". One of the first comments is by tchrist: "What do you mean by grammatical?" What do we mean?

A grammatical discussion on the NY Times site gave me pause for similar reflection. Is there a consensus, at least on ELU, about these terms? Is there a way we can use these terms effectively and accurately (in a linguistic sense) to answer questions? On the one hand, we don't want to confuse non-native speakers (or even laypersons like me). But we don't want to create a misleading or oversimplified picture, either, that leaves professional linguists shaking their heads about what makes "good English".


3 Answers 3


I think there are two basic meanings, and questioners should be asked to clarify which they're using.

  • There's formal written English, as used in textbooks, most novels, newspapers, and technical articles. This has well-defined rules of grammar and orthography. We can talk about the rules of comma placement, or how a semi-colon works, or verb agreement.
  • There's the English people speak, whether formal or informal. Formal spoken English tends to approach the rules of written grammar, but it's not quite the same. In this case, the question is, Would a native speaker actually say this, or does it just sound wrong?
  • 5
    I would agree, except that the first one is not "formal" English so much as it is written English, which is technological, like HTML, IPA, FORTRAN or r33t. "The English people speak," on the other hand, is the real language, represented only vaguely and occasionally by writing. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 23:00
  • @JohnLawler. You're right. Slight edit for clarification.
    – TRiG
    Commented Nov 5, 2012 at 17:35

The question "What do you mean by grammatical?" is not at all a real question. It's either disingenuous -- and given the source, someone who has no problem declaring whether some of the sentences in ELU questions are or aren't grammatical, I'd say that this question is disingenuous -- or rhetorical or an elided isoform of "When you say that a sentence or expression is grammatical or ungrammatical, whose grammar book are you using to make this judgment, what dialect of English are you referring to, and what age of English do you have in mind, Beowulfian, Chaucerian, Shakesperian, Victorian, or Rupert Murdochian"? Specifically, "He's in hospital" in not grammatical in American English but is grammatical in British English. The question is trivial in such a case. "John the biting was bear a" is incontestably not grammatical in any brand of English. The question is trivial in such a case.

There are always reasonable judgments that can be made about specific utterances, but those judgments all depend on context, audience, register, intention, etc. They are mostly about whether something said or written is acceptable, idiomatic, natural, normal, commonplace, understandable, or stylistically good. Changing contexts often mean [NB: The verb can just as easily be singular (means) in this sentence] changing judgments.

I don't think that the terms valid/invalid are appropriate for usage questions. They are from the world of logic and syllogisms and have to do with the conclusions deduced and induced from the premises of an argument.

I don't think that professional linguists are scholars whose expertise prepares them for judging what is "good English" and what is "bad English". Those judgments are usually made by literary critics. A linguist can tell you whether it's grammatical, whether people use that particular expression, where and when native speakers are more or less likely to use it, and other kinds of technical information about language, but linguistic expertise does not necessarily imply aesthetic competence. Some professional linguists are great writers and literary critics, and others are no better (and even often worse) than those wonderful software generators of postmodernist gobbledygook.

"Rules/Guidelines" are usually well-intentioned, artificial, often arbitrary, and personal preferences. Except, of course, for the basic rules of English grammar that we all acquire as native speakers. Anything beyond that, as John Lawler says, falls into the category of the technological: Wanna Learn How to Write and Speak Well? Then RThisFM!

Your question What do we mean? is a good one. But it has to be rewritten to make sense because we don't agree on what we mean. "What do you mean?" can be answered.

  • I think what you mean is sometimes we don't agree on what we mean. But overall I agree with this perspective, though I don't see anything wrong with competent speakers disagreeing here on ELU about exactly where they draw the line between valid/invalid (or, more particularly) elegant/clunky usages. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 4:02
  • "Elegant/clunky" usages are reasonable aesthetic judgments, I agree. No problem whatsoever when I see someone else's opinion expressed about the stylistic quality of a usage. I just think that the "valid/invalid" terminology is being misused when talking about usage. I think that people who use those words really mean acceptable/not acceptable or (un)common enough to (not) be considered idiomatic/normal/natural English. Also true that we only sometimes don't agree on what we mean. But neither do professional linguists always agree on what all the terminology in their field means.
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 4:13
  • I assure you the question is not disingenuous or rhetorical. Elided. . . perhaps. It's precisely because I've made such judgments that I wanted to know how to best express them to avoid confusion and inaccuracy. My statements may not be eloquent or agreeable, but at least they will be clearly understood. :)
    – Zairja
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 13:25
  • @Zairja: I assume Bill means the question raised in the comment posted by tchrist, not the question against which it was posted. I note that jwpat7's answer there points out that some Brits (including me) are quite happy with "I need to show it you" (I suspect tchrist would tear into me if I claimed that was "grammatical"! :). The point is there are an awful lot of constructions where the mere concept of grammatical/ungrammatical is unhelpful. As Bill says, sometimes you have to fall back on [generally considered] acceptable/not acceptable. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 14:04
  • @FumbleFingers Ah, reading comprehension fail! At any rate, I agree on that point made in your next-to-last sentence.
    – Zairja
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 14:10
  • @Zairja: Yes, FumbleFingers is right about which question I consider disingenuous. I think your question is interesting. Had I not thought so, I would not have bothered to reply. How we describe good and bad English is inherently interesting for an English enthusiast, a technical writer and editor, an amateur linguist, and an amateur literary critic like myself. I learn a lot by reading what everyone here says.
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 14:35

My philosophy runs similar to what's quoted in that article you cited:

You give not just “right” or “wrong” rulings on usage, but often a 1-5 score, in which a given usage may be a 1 (definitely a mistake), 3 (common, but …) or 5 (perfectly acceptable). This notion of correctness as a scale, not a binary state, makes you different from many prescriptivists.

While we don't tend to use such a formal rating scale here, I've seen the answers generally parallel the wording of those ratings, from "That's totally wrong" to "Welll.... it's not wrong, but..."

When someone says "ungrammatical" - it's not always clear if they mean "It's less than a 5, therefore it's dubious" or "It's a 1, it's completely wrong." While some clarity might be helpful, I highly doubt we're going to achieve consensus on definitions, or be able to enforce them readily if we did.

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