Grammarian Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Grammar
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A grammarian is a specialist in the grammar of one or more languages: a linguist.

In the modern era, the term grammarian is sometimes used pejoratively to refer to a grammatical purist or prescriptivist--one who's primarily concerned with "correct" usage.

According to James Murphy, the role of the grammarian changed between the classical era ("Roman grammarians seldom ventured into the field of prescriptive advice") and the Middle Ages ("It is precisely on this issue that medieval grammarians strike out into new areas") (Rhetoric in the Middle Ages, 1981).

See the observations below. Also see:

Observations

  • "The man who is in charge of grammar and is called a grammarian is regarded by all plain men as a frigid and dehumanized pedant. It is not difficult to understand the very pallid status of linguistics in America."
    (Edward Sapir, "The Grammarian and His Language." American Mercury, 1924
  • "More than once, plowing through profound and interminable treatises of grammar and syntax during the writing and revision of the present work, I have encountered the cheering spectacle of one grammarian exposing, with contagious joy, the grammatical lapses of some other grammarian. And nine times out of ten, a few pages further on, I have found the enchanted purist erring himself. The most funereal of the sciences is saved from utter horror by such displays of human malice and fallibility."
    (H.L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 2nd ed. Alfred A. Knopf, 1921
  • "When the writer . . . says he has worked without giving any thought to the rules of the process, he simply means he was working without realizing he knew the rules. A child speaks his mother tongue properly, though he could never write out its grammar. But the grammarian is not the only one who knows the rules of the language; they are well known, albeit unconsciously, also to the child. The grammarian is merely the one who knows how and why the child knows the language."
    (Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, 1980
  • Donatus, Roman Grammarian
    "The discipline of grammar developed parallel with that of rhetoric during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and the two often overlapped. Grammar schools provided training necessary for a student before he entered a school of rhetoric . . .. The most famous Roman grammarian was Aelius Donatus, who lived in the fourth century after Christ and whose works were the basic grammatical texts for the Middle Ages. . . .

    "The Ars Minor of Donatus, his most read work, is limited to discussion of the eight parts of speech..., but his fuller Ars Grammatica goes beyond strictly grammatical subjects to discuss, in Book 3, barbarism and solecism as faults of style as well as a number of ornaments of style also discussed by rhetoricians. . . .

    "Donatus's treatment of tropes and figures had great authority and was substantially repeated in handbooks by the Venerable Bede and other later writers. Since grammar was always more widely studied than rhetoric, and often out of Donatus's text, his discussion insured that these ornaments of style were known in later centuries even to students who did not study rhetoric as a separate discipline."
    (George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, 2nd ed. University of North Carolina Press, 1999
  • Guardians of Language
    "[In late antiquity, the] grammarian was, first, the guardian of the language, custos Latini sermonis, in a phrase of Seneca, or 'guardian of articulate utterance,' in the description of Augustine. He was to protect the language against corruption, to preserve its coherence, and to act as an agent of control: thus, early in his history, we find the grammarian claiming the right to limit the grant of citizenship (civitas) to new usages. But by virtue of his command of the poetic texts, the grammarian's guardianship extended to another, more general area, as guardian of tradition (historiae custos). The grammarian was the conservator of all the discrete pieces of tradition embedded in his texts, from matters of prosody (to which Augustine refers in his characterization) to the persons, events, and beliefs that marked the limits of vice and virtue.

    "The two realms of the guardianship thus answered to the two divisions of the grammarian's task, the knowledge of speaking correctly and the explication of the poets . . .."
    (Robert A. Kaster, Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity. University of California Press, 1997)