I often see the expression "That's ungrammatical" used to explain why something is not OK. For example, a user might post a question: "Is it OK to say, I are go to New York?" Most people would answer it is not OK because it is "ungrammatical" and then depending on their level of knowledge give reasons or site references to back up their claim.

However, if the sentence is "I am owning a car." or "I will speak with your pony yesterday." it is suddenly not so clear. In the first case, that's just not how native speakers learned to speak (although many ESL learners might say "Why not? It makes perfect sense and doesn't violate what I learned in school!), and in the second case, the sentence doesn't make sense. But, I would contend that they are both grammatical. Sentence order is standard English, the verb and subject agree, the prepositions are in the correct place, etc.

I ask because I think it's important to have a clear idea of what "ungrammatical" means. But I also ask because from time to time we get questions such as "Why is it incorrect to say "I have written a book since 2001."?" and they don't get much attention and when they do the answers are "Sounds wrong." "To my ear..." or "It's just plain ungrammatical."

So what does it mean to say something is "grammatical" or "ungrammatical?" Does it mean that the sentence follows "standard" syntax rules (whatever those are) or does it mean that the sentence is logical and "makes sense?"

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    I would call "I am owning a car" non-idiomatic. I would call "I will speak with your pony yesterday" either a logical fallacy or syntactically incorrect. That said, it's my understanding that the umbrella of "grammatical error" can cover any "instance of faulty, unconventional, or controversial usage." Nevertheless, I do agree that using such broad terms is less than helpful on a site such as ELU. People are looking for specifics, not generalities. To that end, I'd agree it's better here to use "grammatical error" to refer to mechanical errors and other existing terms for what you describe. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 11:54
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    I ask because I got into a discussion with another user about the sentence "I will like it tomorrow." Their point of view was that it was ungrammatical. I don't agree but I don't understand their reasons, so maybe my ideas of grammaticality are wrong. I also see this bandied around a lot. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 11:55
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    I don't think it's an issue of you or the other user using the wrong word. I think the problem arises out of the fact that, like many words, "grammatical" has multiple definitions. What's more, how the word is applied to the term "grammatically incorrect" varies. The loosest definitions include any instance of faulty, unconventional, or controversial usage, but in the context of this site and grammarians in conversations about grammar, people tend to use it more to refer to the nuts and bolts of language, to punctuation, conjugation, subject-verb agreement, etc. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 11:59
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    Interesting that you add punctuation to the list...some people on the site would say that punctuation is not part of grammar because it's opinion based. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:04
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    @Rathony it seems my question is a duplicate but I think this issue still needs exploring. I understand the answer is "grammatical is what the books / authorities" say but there are so many instances where people don't write or speak the way the books / authorities say we should. The term gets used a lot without a clear understanding. Benjamin thinks punctuation is part of grammar...im not so sure and I think many here would say "no, punctuation isn't part of grammar." Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:20

2 Answers 2


According to Wiktionary, the adjective grammatical means:

(linguistics) Acceptable as a correct sentence or clause as determined by the rules and conventions of the grammar, or morpho-syntax of the language.

In the linked related question, Can “grammatical” mean “grammatically correct”?, Berrie England wrote:

To say that a sentence is grammatical is to say that it conforms to the rules of English grammar as found in the way in which native speakers normally use the language and... Describing any construction as incorrect is unhelpful and inadequate. That is why, in most cases, it it makes more sense simply to say whether or not a construction is grammatical.

I have seen some occasions where there are two different explanations about a grammatical issue. For example, the linked question “The earthquake, along with its subsequent aftershocks, HAS/HAVE …” asks whether it is grammatical to use have or has after "The earthquake, along with its subsequent aftershocks..."

There are two distinctly different answers posted by two users, one says we have to use has as the earthquake is the subject and along with... is a prepositional phrase, and the other says has is right, but we could consider using have as along with... has a potential to be considered as a conjunction.

Which is grammatically correct? Both of them are grammatical as long as you could quote the right reference in a grammar book.

Should we use are or is after dummy there when there are plural words following the verb? Should we use are or is after a collective noun such as family, team, etc. Can we use an indefinite article before a mass noun? Should all the English adjectives be placed before a noun? How about something special?

There are countless number of grammatical questions that could be answered in more than two ways. And some say A is grammatically correct, but B is broadly used colloquially.

What does colloquially exactly mean, then? Does it mean it is not grammatical?

I would have called you if you would have let me know it was that urgent.

Is the above sentence grammatical? Related question, “If I would have lost you” vs “If I had lost you”.

The answer is no. But it is used colloquially by some people especially in the U.S.

If A writes a grammar book that says we can use would have + PP after the conjunction if, the above sentence would be grammatical in accordance with the grammar book written by A, but it would be ungrammatical according to B, C, D, etc.

But we can't always say which book or grammar you are referring to when you say some sentences or clauses are grammatical, then, the word is as ambiguous as it gets and should be avoided unless you are sure about which grammar book you are referring to.

I think grammatical is often times synonymous with "it makes sense to my native ears" and it could be used when you talk about uncontroversial rules that are so obvious that you don't have to quote any grammar book. But saying it is grammatical should be avoided when you are not sure about what grammar rules you are referring to.

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    +1 Nice post. However, no grammar book that I know of would agree that the word earthquake is the complete Subject in that sentence. Even the webpage linked to in the post clearly that says it is, clearly contradicts the posts author. It clearly that the simple subject is the head noun in the noun phrase and that the complete subject is the entire noun phrase including determiners premodifiers and postmodifiers (i.e. articles, adjectives and preposition phrases). I've never seen a reputable grammar source that says that a Subject must be a single word! Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 17:55
  • @Araucaria Thank you for your comment. I am not sure if my answer is good enough to deserve your +1. But the more I read grammar books, the more confused I get. Especially when I see some of the traditional grammar rules or theories are being challenged by new rules. Anyway, challenging is always constructive. :-)
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 18:02

The grammatical can be defined with reference to a dialect or with reference to a language comprised of one or more dialects.

When considered as a whole, the speech acts of a preponderance of native speakers of a given dialect or language reveal a set of inherent rules these speakers are following. Utterances which conform to these rules are said to be grammatical.

When viewed at a point in time, synchronically, these rules appear to be stationary; but when viewed over time, diachronically, these rules are seen to be a moving target. And different features of a language or dialect change at different rates. So what is judged to be grammatical at one point in time may be judged to be marginal, or outright ungrammatical, a hundred years later, say. The number of speakers who follow the rule has dwindled and the number of people who violate it has grown.

Things can get a little complicated when the focus is language, not dialect. If we regard the language not as the superset of its dialects but as the subset of rules that are shared among its dialects, then what may be grammatical in a dialect might not be grammatical for the language.

  • Thanks for responding. I ask because I had a discussion with a user about the sentence, "I will like it yesterday." and "I speak blue paint." I feel they are grammatical...they disagreed. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:09
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    Well, the rule is not simply "verb followed by adverb" but that the future tense refers to things in the future; so will like and yesterday are aspectual oil and water.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:11
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    Well part of me agrees with that, but part of me doesn't because it leads to certain ideas being off limits because they are ungrammatical. Our language ends up forcing us into a conceptual box. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:24
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    @michael_timofeev. There is support for your opinion (in your first comment) in The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Its definition of grammatical (p187) has the following extract: 'Grammatical' is not synonymous with 'meaningful': a sentence may be grammatical even though it is nonsensical. ... Conversely, a sentence may be meaningful but ungrammatical.
    – Shoe
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:26
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    I devour brick is grammatical but nonsensical. I brick devour is ungrammatical and nonsensical.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:28

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