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More often than not, I read and hear this from native speakers.

"It is grammatical but I don't think any native speaker would say/use that."

Now this is catch-22! - To use it or not?

Further perplexing is English is a very unique language that keeps on evolving as we speak and practice. However, 'evolving', at times, becomes informal way of telling things that natives only ask us to refrain using it!

So, a simple question is -- when a native says "it's grammatical but we don't practice it" -- should we (non-native speakers) use it? Because anything that they don't practice may not be English.

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    This is universal, in any language, my humble opinion. We can say many things that can be considered "grammatical", technically. (I think even what "grammatical" is is debatable, too.) Grammar is mostly about syntax, so in a given set of syntax, we can "generate" a string of any length that doesn't violate the rules, but does that mean "natural", something that a native speaker in the same situation thinking of the same thing would say? Maybe, maybe not. The more the unlikely choices are used, the less natural sounding the speech would become. – Damkerng T. Dec 19 '15 at 10:21
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    To put my opinion in a nutshell, there are so many things beyond grammar. – Damkerng T. Dec 19 '15 at 10:22
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    You see, there are many "filters" an utterance should pass in order to be acceptable and not gain weird looks. I can always say "the bombastic witch was eaten by a happy cup." and that's grammatical but would you recommend anyone to say it? Likewise, imagine that I ask "how was your day?" and you answer "three bars of chocolate." Is this to be considered recommended usage? – M.A.R. Dec 19 '15 at 20:48
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    Yeah, but Three bars of chocolate could very well sum up a person's day and be an actual response by a speaker, but yeah I wouldn't recommend it in general. --NES – user20792 Dec 20 '15 at 6:10
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    In my experience, the term NSE is too broad to be actually implying anything about the quality of the answer. I learned to regard that with a bit of skepticism, considering closely who states that instead of what's their mother tongue. Ask yourself - how many NSEs would find it unusual. And consider also the age, education level, geographical area etc. Also - if you think English evolves - welcome to Sweden! Our language is actually deteriorating as we speak at a very high pace. And it annoys me when people correct me for something that was accepted just ten years ago! Grrr... – Konrad Viltersten Dec 27 '15 at 19:28
  • I just ran into a good example, where the OP asked about Can I say to my girlfriend “You are my whole”?. Technically, it should be grammatical. Idiomatically, I don't think anyone would use it. – Damkerng T. Jan 9 '16 at 8:53
14

It is important to remember that grammar is an attempt to explain how language works, not a set of rules guaranteed to produce meaningful or idiomatic sentences.

We speak in idioms, and speaking a language like a native means mastering the idioms. When someone warns you that a phrase is grammatical but not idiomatic, they are simply saying that while the phrase may convey the meaning you intend, it is not how native speakers would say it.

We don't tend to notice how idiomatic our own language is until we try to learn another one. Then we end up trying to literally translate an idiom from our own language into an idiom in the language we are learning. Sometimes the result is understandable but not idiomatic in the new language. Sometimes it is meaningless in the new language. But the bottom line is that you need to master the idioms of the new language to speak it fluently and people are trying to help by pointing out phrases that make sense grammatically but are not idiomatic English.

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There's English that is perfect acceptable English, yet it sounds stiff, and then there is language that sounds more natural, yet it might not even be grammatically correct.

As for which to use, that depends on the situation. My English changes in my day-to-day life. Different situations call for different degrees of formality and politeness. I don't talk in the locker room in the same way I talk in the office; I won't write my resumé using the same English that I use when I'm writing a note to my parents.

A comment like the one you mention:

"It is grammatical but I don't think any native speaker would say that."

is just meant to alert learners: what you read in books may not carry very well into casual conversation. I don't think anyone is asking a learner to refrain from using anything, but we think that many learners will appreciate knowing what is common, and what sounds unusual to native ears.

That said, such a caveat may only apply to a certain region. ELL often mentions differences between, say, AmE and BrE, but variations in the language spread well beyond that divide. In the U.S., for example, we have swaths of the population (mainly in the south) who frequently use the word y'all to refer to the second person: "Y'all coming to the meeting? It starts in five minutes." Yet there are other parts of the country where the word y'all will get you funny looks.

So, take such notes with a grain of salt, and pay attention to the upvote counters. But there's no need to fret about using something that allegedly isn't used. It's all English to me.

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Now this is catch-22! - To use it or not?

If it carries the meaning across, and you are not performing a translation job for a client desiring the translation to be as close as possible to "standard idiom" English, when it's your choice.

Maybe native speakers will like your way of stringing English words together, and will adopt it, and you will have participated in the evolution of the language.

It's not a catch-22 situation. Catch-22 is when a strange combination of rules forbids you from exercising your free will. To the contrary, when you've coined a formally grammatical sentence, and you are not under contractual obligations, you're as free as Shakespeare to add to the language's store.

However, 'evolving', at times, becomes informal way of telling things that natives only ask us to refrain using it!

Sorry, I don't understand the meaning of this sentence.

P.S. I twigged it! You mean that when a native talks to a non-native about the language "evolving", they still kind of hint by that: "your phrasing has evolved a bit too much from the standard idiom".

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Because, obviously, a sentence can be without grammatical error but not represent anything in the world that is actually said. And this would be either because a sentence, even though grammatical, may not be how a native speaker conveys meaning. Grammar and semantics are not the same.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously comes to mind.

Although the sentence is grammatically correct, no obvious understandable meaning can be derived from it, and thus it demonstrates the distinction between syntax and semantics.

You might benefit from reading the whole article, or by reading an introduction to linguistics. Many books are available for the nonspecialist.

--NES

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Grammar is the technical aspect of a language, any language. It can be mastered by memorizing and practicing all the available rules.

Idiom (the peculiar character or genius of a language; a style of speaking peculiar to a people) is something one can only learn through experience, even though the process can be greatly facilitated through memorization of well-written texts and traditional (i.e. metered) poetry. Keeping an open mind can help a lot.

Music is the one analogy that springs immediately to mind. Computers are far better equipped than humans to master the technical aspect of music. Melody, harmony, orchestration, counterpoint, etc: it ain't rocket science. That said, no computer can distinguish between a good opus and a mediocre one; no machine can assert, based on its analysis of the two scores, that which a human connoisseur will tell you instantly: that brilliant as it may be, Giacomo Puccini's Turandot is less brilliant than Tosca, written by the same composer.

Certainly no computer is capable of writing its own masterpiece comparable with Wagner's Siegfried, Verdi's Rigoletto, or Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame. The technique may be there, but something will always be just a little off: machines, they just don't get it.

Children master their native idiom before they even find out that there is such a thing as grammar. A child's unfiltered mind and pure soul is naturally attuned to the music of their mother's tongue (or, in some cases, their nanny's and governess's tongue). Grownups trying to learn a new language do not have that luxury: the language, or languages, they already know weigh heavy on them. They need grammar to help them "get the hang of it."

Each time you encounter a situation where something is grammatically correct yet sounds awkward, lame, or downright moronic, do not despair, and do not ask why there's no rule that might help you understand it. Learning a new language is not an exclusively intellectual pursuit: there's a spiritual (ineffable ... divine, if you will) aspect to it; language is akin to such intriguing concepts as faith, hope, and love: we all know what those are, we understand their function and purpose, but we can't define them, nor can we satisfactorily explain, even to ourselves, how they work.

An idiomatic turn of phrase works because it fits, and not because it's grammatically correct (or not).

You'll recall Wordsworth:

The sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

Why is the sea suddenly female, and the moon male? Who knows. But it does somehow make perfect sense in this context, does it not. That said, should your knowledge of grammar be sufficient at this point, and should the word scansion mean anything to you, you'll immediately realize that "we are" should be spelled "we're" to make the line scan.

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  • +1 But I'd say "no computer is yet capable". (0: – CowperKettle Dec 24 '15 at 7:43
  • @CopperKettle: Ah, yes. And Star Trek is really a documentary. – Ricky Dec 24 '15 at 7:49

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