7

All too often, the 19th century scholars who wrote volumes on English grammar are today accused of being pedantic; persnickety; puritanical and prescriptivist poppycock grammarians.

In the 21st century the epithets grammar Nazi and grammar police are launched at anyone brave (or foolish) enough to point out that the word photo's does not require an apostrophe, or that noone should be written as two words "no one". Which aren't even grammar corrections but spelling ones. Anyway...

What do call a person who is an expert on the English language and its grammar? A person who always provides a clear answer to any language problem, a person who is infinitely helpful, modest and kind. Do we only call them an "expert" on grammar?

Is there a laudatory expression that we can use?

Here are just two I found on EL&U, the third was coined by me, but I'm sure there are many others.

  • crazy grammar genius
  • punctuation czar
  • grammar queen

N.B
EL&U rightly frowns on long lists, so no more than three suggestions please.

  • 4
    Grammar guru. Honestly, though, if you're unsolicitedly correcting someone's grammar, you're going to get negativity thrown at you. Pedant. – Ian MacDonald Mar 13 '15 at 18:47
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    The real experts share the low opinion of prescriptivists as grammar nazis who are ignorant dilettantes. – Greg Lee Mar 13 '15 at 19:06
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    I'm an expert at the same level as Greg (emeritus), but I don't like the term descriptivist; it implies there's another real variety of grammar. That's about as true as the idea that there is evolutionary biology and there is creationist biology, and they're on the same level, both biology. So called "prescriptivists" are naive social engineers, not grammarians. As Greg said, they're ignorant dilettantes. – John Lawler Mar 14 '15 at 22:46
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    Re your recent edit and the irony, I actually thought that was intentional from the beginning. It wasn't? Nor the "A person who ...provide(s?)" in the next sentence? – Papa Poule Mar 14 '15 at 23:30
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    @PapaPoule No, it wasn't, (I almost wish it was) but it's a common spelling mistake of mine, fossilized. Oh dear, another typo. You're right about "provides". How did I miss that one?! In conclusion I am neither a spelling guru, nor a grammar maven. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 '15 at 23:44
5
+50

A term that has laudatory connotations is language maven. Wikipedia defines maven as follows:

A maven (also mavin) is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from Hebrew, meaning "one who understands", based on an accumulation of knowledge.

As Wikipedia further notes:

Since the 1980s it (maven) has become more common since William Safire adopted it to describe himself as "the language maven". The word is mainly confined to American English, but did not appear with the publication of the 1976 edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary; it is, however, included in the Oxford English Dictionary second edition (1989) and the American Heritage Dictionary fourth edition (2000). Numerous individuals and entities now affix maven or mavin to assert their expertise in a particular area.

The following is an extract from The New York Times, the newspaper in which Safire wrote a regular column about language issues (called On Language) until his death in 2009:

Though he jokingly anointed himself “Usage Dictator,” he was never comfortable with expectations that he play the part of language absolutist, handing down infallible decrees. “Maven” was a title more to his liking, a Yiddishism that he said contained its own “note of self-mockery.” (An incurable paronomasiac, he also enjoyed punning off the word, as in his 1993 collection of columns, “Quoth the Maven.”)

And further:

As battles raged between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive linguists and lexicographers, Safire more often than not played both sides against the middle.

Note: The On Language articles in The New York Times were continued for a while by maven Ben Zimmer, who is also a regular contributor to Language Log.

  • The problem with maven is (a) it's Yiddish; (b) it's in casual use in New York city; (c) it's been applied to William Safire, who was an entertaining writer, but who knew nothing about English grammar -- probably because he wrote for the New York Times, which views New York as the cultural center of the nation. – John Lawler Mar 14 '15 at 22:50
  • William Safire is the only popular language commentator I ever read a book by. And I did that because my mother bought me his On Language book -- a collection of his newspaper columns. (She thought that's the kind of thing I did. I had to read it.) It wasn't bad. He was fact-oriented, a good observer, and had lots of interesting anecdotes. He had made an effort to learn some descriptive linguistics. I read it all the way through, as I was pleased to be able to report to my mother. – Greg Lee Mar 15 '15 at 2:27
  • @JohnLawler. That Safire knew nothing about English grammar is debatable. This is what Professor Pullum says in a comment on Ben Zimmer's obituary (languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1774) to Safire on Language Log: "We should not forget that Safire formed a lasting pen-pal relationship with the great MIT-trained linguist and polymath James D. McCawley, and consulted McCawley regularly, and clearly valued what he learned thereby. Another sign of his intellectual openness and genuine interest." – Shoe Mar 15 '15 at 7:13
  • "Quoth the maven, 'Never bore!' " – Erik Kowal Mar 15 '15 at 7:50
  • Yes, he wasn't as bad as some of the other English language shamans that Bolinger talked about. BTW, given the OQ, some consideration should be given to Shaman (pronounced /'ʃeimən/ in academic English). English Language shamans are self-appointed authorities about correct usage, usually writers or talking heads who fancy they understand things and wish to enlighten the masses. Read Bolinger's great Language: The Loaded Weapon to see the picture. – John Lawler Mar 15 '15 at 15:33
2

Professional linguist would be an accurate term for such a person, though it's not an all-encompassing one (because there are many 'grammar gurus' who do not make a living from their language expertise). We also have the terms English teacher and English professor for people who are (in principle) expert in English and disseminate their knowledge to others.

Terms like grammar Nazi and grammar police exist in response to the fact that:

1) not everyone welcomes having their linguistic practices commented on or 'corrected';

2) many self-styled experts cannot tell the difference between their own personal preferences and usages they are merely unfamiliar with, but apply their own prejudices regardless; and

3) some of them have a habit of claiming greater knowledge or expertise than they actually possess.

Incidentally, it is unlikely that I would describe myself as a grammar queen even if I possessed the necessary level of expertise to qualify for the title.

Regarding the term grammar guru, I have the following observations:

1) 'Grammar guru' does not occur in the OED as an established term.
2) The citations contained in the OED's entry for guru (of which a clone can be found here) refer solely to the term's religious usage until 1957, after which it occurs in a secular context, sometimes as a less-than-complimentary term.

(For instance, an article in the London Times dated 4 October 1968 reports the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson talking about Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton:

"In what was obviously intended to be a sneering reference, the Prime Minister in his facile glibness..described Mr. Enoch Powell as ‘the guru of Wolverhampton’."

Here, Wilson was using 'guru' as a snarky epithet for a political opponent whom he regarded as a false prophet and troublemaker — in April 1968, Powell had delivered his notorious 'Rivers of Blood' speech opposing new legislation that would make it easier for immigrants from the Commonwealth to settle in Britain.)

My attempts to pin down the earliest attested occurrence of grammar guru have been largely fruitless.

The term is not found either in Brigham Young University's Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), its Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), its Strathy Corpus (of Canadian English), or its British National Corpus (BNC); nor in Oxford University's BNC. I have searched other corpora too, but with the exception of BYU's Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE), which contained only a handful of what appeared to be relatively recent hits, these too were devoid of the term.

For what it's worth, the domain name grammarguru.com was (according to Whois.net) first registered in 1999.

The nearest I could come is a 1997 reference to slang guru by Jonathon Green, the renowned lexicographer of English slang, describing Eric Partridge (the author of inter alia A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

  • I mentioned grammar Nazi and grammar police in my post because (1) I didn't want anyone to post them as answers (2) to illustrate that casual pejorative terms existed. I would like a casual laudatory expression. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 '15 at 6:38
  • @Mari-LouA - Yes, I get all those things. I'm not sure there are many more laudatory expressions for this concept, but we'll have to see what else other people come up with. – Erik Kowal Mar 14 '15 at 6:44
  • 1
    A very good answer. Thank you! It's curious how the tag guru appears to be both pejorative and laudatory. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 '15 at 8:46
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    @Mari-Lou There's a bit of comment-talk about the dual connotation of guru on this answer, though I have to say I've still never come across negative uses in real life—only here on ELU. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 14 '15 at 8:58
2
  1. Grammar wiz may be a satisfactory answer. 'Wiz' means a person who is extremely clever at something, so to refer to a person who provides any clear answer to any linguistic or grammatical problem we may use the coinage 'Grammar wiz'.

  2. Punctuation pundit cab be used to refer to person who is an authority in grammar (pundit means the same thing as guru). This coinage is alliterative so quite pleasing to the ears.

  • Unfortunately, punctuation isn't part of grammar. And wiz is short for wizard, which is much more laudatory than wiz. – John Lawler Mar 16 '15 at 17:38
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Grammarian, perhaps? I appreciate a great editor, however, being an expert in grammar and knowing the applicable style guide are just prerequisites for being a great editor.

  • The term grammarian describes someone who studies and writes about grammar. It is in the question I posted. I would like a more informal casual word/expression that describes such an expert. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 '15 at 6:31
  • Apologies. The downvote was from me. It was entirely unintended and must have happened during ham-fisted scrolling of the page. I searched on Meta but apparently the downvote is irrevocable and a compensatory upvote is only possible after the post has been edited. – Shoe Mar 14 '15 at 10:32
  • @Shoe You should be able to un-downvote by just clicking the downvote triangle again. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 14 '15 at 23:43
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - Within 5 minutes of the original downvote. – Hot Licks Mar 15 '15 at 0:19
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    @Shoe if it bothers you so much, edit the answer—just adding an extra space is suffice, and you can undo your vote. – Mari-Lou A Mar 15 '15 at 8:27
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Human

Unless they suffer from a birth defect or suffer some sort of injury to the language centers, humans have an innate ability to construct and parse human languages. A child of 6 has command of most language features -- he just lacks vocabulary.

A "grammarian" knows the names of the various parts of speech, and can spout a bunch of supposed "rules" about language construction, but arguably his comprehension of the real rules is only marginally better than the child's. In fact, the grammarian may have, as a result of attempting to reduce the rules etched in the brain to a set of marks on paper, lost some knowledge of the real language that the 6-year-old still possesses.

  • An expert in grammar is not necessarily a grammarian by profession. He or she may have a passion for the language and have a knack for understanding its complexities and nuances. There are such people, and yes, they too are human. :) – Mari-Lou A Mar 15 '15 at 15:34

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