Lies from elementary school you believed: On what's grammatical

posted by Kris (with a “k”) polls_f_paper1_4123_215917_poll_xlarge

A good deal of us probably grew up being taught that there is good and bad English, and that this distinction is as clear as black and white. The trouble is that this is hardly the case. What might be considered grammatical or ungrammatical is not an either/or option. Curiously, the “black and white” analogy may be more fitting on second thought.

Just as black and white are understood to exist along a varying degrees of the color spectrum, so too grammaticalness exists along a continuum of making more or making less sense. Read these made-up sentences with extra attention on the use of “began”. Instead of telling you what you’ll like find (and so possibly be charged with making you see something you wouldn’t have otherwise), I’ll tell you after you read them.[1]

  • Jeremy began the novel.
  • Jacob began the magazine.
  • Mike began the dictionary.

Notice anything?

To begin a novel makes good enough sense—it, after all, is written to be read from start to finish. But what about a magazine? Maybe. But these tend to be understood as a collection of individual pieces you could peruse in any order; so “began” might make less sense here. Finally, the dictionary. Unless you’re a real nerd, you probably don’t pick up a dictionary and start reading line by line. This type of collection is almost certainly something you consult on an as-needed basis. So your initial reaction to hearing that someone began reading a dictionary might be, “Why on earth?”

With that said, you can see how even though all of these sentences are grammatical, the immediacy with which each sentence makes sense varies. That’s because you can’t separate syntax from semantics. But that's not what the godfather of linguistics thinks. In fact, Chomsky argues just the opposite—that the two are indeed separated—and uses the following sentence to demonstrate that semantics and syntax are two unrelated parameters of language.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Grammatical? Strangely, yes.

Intelligible? On first pass, no.

But consider the situation where this sentence might be speaking about environmentally friendly ideas are nowhere to be found, at least ones that possess a certain degree of punch or utility (Evans 2014:172–174). Although this sentence probably wouldn’t be a go-to way to express this thought, it nonetheless remains true that the grammatical status of a sentence is best judged in terms of its semantic intelligibility. In other words, whether or not a comment is grammatical should ultimately be evaluated in terms of the degree to which it can make sense, not just the syntactic arrangement of its words.


If black is considered to represent a grammatical sentence, grey may be taken to represent one that’s more fuzzy.

Are you happy you've finished reading this post? Maybe its time to finish reading the internet now… Good luck.


[1] Examples adapted from Evans, V (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct (Cambridge), 174.