I have noticed various marks in example sentences to denote incorrect examples of English:

This is correct.

*This incorrectly.

The former is left alone; the latter has an asterisk marking the sentence as a bad example ‐ something to avoid and not repeat.

Is this notation widely adopted? Are there other marks with similar purposes? I have also seen the following denoting a questionable case:

? This would have been maybe debated.

I am interested in the proper usage and formatting of these marks. How should they be spaced? Should they be placed before or after the sentence? If a particular word is in question, should that word get the mark or the entire sentence?

  • This question arose after JSBangs used them in an answer to another question. I chose to not post this question on meta because I am interested in how they are used with regards to the English language -- not how to use them on this site. Also, I potshotted on the tags. Someone who knows better should take a look.
    – MrHen
    Apr 11 '11 at 16:52
  • This is a very interesting question! +1. Colin gave you a good answer. By the way, such symbols are used in other languages as well. I don't really know, but I think they all use the same standards (for obvious reasons).
    – Alenanno
    Apr 11 '11 at 18:35

These are standard in linguistics works. I don't think they are widely used or understood by general readers.

(There are actually two different uses of '*', one marking utterances which would not occur, and the other marking historical words or forms which are reconstructed, not attested; but it is rare that this double use causes any confusion).

I would put the markers immediately before the sentence without a space:

*They wasn't coming

I would occasionally use them to mark an individual word, but normally only when different possibilities are being compared:

They weren't / *wasn't coming

  • You might say that both uses are the same, meaning "not attested": if it is an old phrase, this means that it might have existed, but we have no evidence; if a modern phrase, the fact that it isn't attested means for all practical purposes that it is ungrammatical, in the linguistic sense. The main difference is that you would never make up an intentionally ungrammatical example for historical words as you would for modern ones. Apr 11 '11 at 17:20
  • Isn't there a use of the simbol for old phrases?
    – nico
    Apr 11 '11 at 17:29
  • In direct quotes where one wants to preserve incorrect spellings, most commonly I see the word followed by "[sic]" -- would that also be appropriate for incorrect or idiomatic grammar?
    – Martha F.
    Apr 12 '11 at 3:09
  • @nico: the OED uses this for obsolete words, and probnbly other dictionaries do so. I don't recall encountering it in examples in a paper, as opposed to a dictionary.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 12 '11 at 8:51
  • @Martha: it depends on your purpose. 'sic' says "This is what was there, even though you might think that I must have made a mistake". It's not specific about what looks wrong about it - it might be grammar, spelling, punctuation, falsehood, self-contradiction, dubious facts, offensive language, uncharacteristic tone, or yet other things. The '*', in linguistics contexts, means "this would not be uttered or written" usually for grammatical or lexical reasons.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 12 '11 at 8:59

I think this is an extension of the use in mathematics and logic. You would use the asterisk to prefix a statement that is not mathematically/logically valid, eg when giving it as an example in a textbook.

  • I've never seen this in mathematics, though I have read less of that than linguistics.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 12 '11 at 9:00

After considerable work on punctuation theory, I have begun to introduce in my classes the term 'unpunctal' for sentences marked with an asterisk. There is no term in Nunberg that corresponds to 'ungrammatical.'

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