The title is really the question but I will elaborate with some background and examples.

I have lately seen a number of answers (on ELL mostly) which state that something is ungrammatical because its meaning doesn't make sense (I'm paraphrasing). An example of which I of course can't find right now (will edit if I do).

I know of the famous sentence by Chomsky "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." which seems to strictly answer my question in the negative but I think there is a bit of an issue here. That sentence is nonsensical in a very obvious way and moreover has an easy structure.

The reason I feel there might be some merit to the semantics argument is because I think it affects "introspective grammaticality judgments" (so many names for things you can find on the wiki).

Consider the following two sentences taken from this post.

This would have been cause to doubt that divine favour has been bestowed on Romans.

and the proposed changed version

This would have been caused to doubt that divine favour has been bestowed on Romans.

The first time I thought of the second sentence I automatically judged it as ungrammatical. But consider the situation where we are talking about two AI algorithms handling some information casting doubt on whether the favour was bestowed, and the person who utters the sentence points to the algorithm which would be caused to doubt that vs. the other one which wouldn't be caused to doubt it. In that case the sentence seems fine to me.

This might be a bit of a contrived example, but if you just consider "[Something] has been caused to doubt [something]" while knowing that the intent of the speaker was to really say "[something] has been cause to doubt [something]" I feel the original anchoring might make you judge it ungrammatical.

Is this a general effect or is it just me? Can semantics affect grammar?

  • 1
    I suspect that grammar has more to do with the assignment of parts of speech rather than with semantics per se. There is, of course, the interplay between grammar influencing semantic interpretation and grammar depending on some level of semantics. However, it might be more correct to say that grammar depends on syntax rather than semantics.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 12:56
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    The word "semantics" is barely defined. It was a trendy term that academics who got research grants for studying .. semantics .. bandied about. It's one of those words that sounds important but means nothing. You might as well just say "meaning". Could it be that all you are asking, really, is "in ambiguous sentences, can the grammar be correct one way but wrong the other way?" (Remembering that of course ambiguity is extremely common, ubiquitous, in English.) I can't really make up such an example sentence, but I guess in written English yeah the reader might say "oh it's that one"....
    – Fattie
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 13:22
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    ...note however that for that hypothetical reader, English involves massive, overwhelming, constant, never-ending ambiguity - which is always trivially resolved by context. Any effect of "resolving ambiguity by grammar rules" would be trivialized, irrelevant - compared to the every-moment, basic process of constantly resolving ambiguity in English via context. (Regarding spoken English, it has no grammar, it's a collection of animalistic grunts connected by "ums". Nobody would notice grammar issues either way in spoken English.)
    – Fattie
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 13:25
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    Perhaps it's best to leave it at 'acceptability is not exactly synonymous with grammaticality'. Many attempts have been made to show how Chomsky's sentence might be reasonably interpreted (ie attempts to drag it into the 'acceptable' domain) but most people consider them silly. John Lawler once commented on a structure 'It's grammatical, but that's the only good thing you can say about it' (owtte). // Even 'acceptability' is ill-defined; Quirk & Svartvik postulate a 5-point gradience (though they conflate 'grammaticality' with 'acceptability'). Commented May 12, 2016 at 13:29
  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is ungrammatical because the verb "sleep" does not license (specifically permit) the subject "colorless green ideas". One of the basic rules of grammar is that complements have to be licensed by the 'head'.
    – BillJ
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 14:45

1 Answer 1


Yes, absolutely.

Per chapter 1 of Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch's The syntax of natural language: An online introduction using the Trees program:

A final important point to bear in mind is that any sentence is an expression that is paired with a particular interpretation. Grammaticality is always determined with respect to a pairing of form and meaning. This means that a particular string can be grammatical under one interpretation, but not under another. For instance, (59) is ungrammatical under an subject-object-verb (SOV) interpretation (that is, when the sentence is interpreted as Sue hired Tom).

(59)     Sue Tom hired.

(59) is grammatical, however, under an object-subject-verb (OSV) interpretation (that is, when it is interpreted as Tom hired Sue). On this interpretation, Sue receives a special intonation marking contrast, which would ordinarily be indicated in writing by setting off Sue from the rest of the sentence by a comma. In other words, the grammaticality of (59) depends on whether its interpretation is analogous to (60a) or (60b).

(60)  a. ok  Her, he hired. (The other job candidates, he didn't even call back.)
          b.  *   She him hired.

Nonetheless, when citing an example that is ungrammatical under the intended interpretation but grammatical under some other interpretation, authors will frequently take pains to clarify this, rather than taking it for granted that readers will first identify the intended interpretation and then successfully consider grammaticality solely in light of that interpretation (since if a sentence has a grammatical reading, it can be very difficult to completely ignore that reading in favor of whatever the author has in mind). For example:

But (140) is not grammatical with the reading intended here. [link]

7 Grammatical in the irrelevant interpretation in which is a VP-modifying locative adverbial: ‘I have met the guy THERE’ [link (PDF)]

(the latter being a footnote appended to an example that was marked with the ungrammaticality marker *).

(Of course, usually authors prefer to find examples that are not grammatical with any reading, to as to sidestep this issue completely.)

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