etching showing Samual Johnson

Samuel Johnson (1817) by Thomas Priscott (active early 19th century), after Thomas Trotter (c. 1750–1803). Etching held in the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, USA. Public domain.

Part of my job is to correct grammar. The longer I do this job, the more I learn how diverse and elastic language is. And that certain ‘grammar rules’ are really not grammar rules but my personal preference.

As I’m fighting my own urge to make unnecessary changes to other people’s writing, I’m also growing increasingly averse to articles such as ‘19 grammar rules you’re getting wrong’ that float around on the internet. More often than not these lists contain ‘rules’ that are not hard and fast rules, or indeed ‘rules’ that have nothing to do with grammar at all. And they fail to acknowledge that language is always changing and that it is a creative tool.

‘Grammar police’ and ‘grammar Nazis’ are ugly epithets used for people who like to publish such lists. They have been around much longer than I realised. Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language (published in April 1755) calls them grammaticasters, a more likeable term in my opinion, and cites a quotation from 1678.

Image showing the lemma for the word grammaticaster in Samuel Johnson's dictionary.

Entry for the word ‘grammaticaster’ in the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Book held in the British Library in London, UK. Public domain.

The suffix -aster is borrowed from Latin to form pejorative nouns for naming people who pretend to be what they are not or who pretend to be more than they are. A poetaster is an unskilled poet; a philosophaster is a bad philosopher; a medicaster is a quack doctor; a criticaster is a petty critic.

The 1864 revised edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language quotes playwright Ben Jonson as using the word ‘grammaticaster’ as early as 1601, in his satirical play Poetaster (although the Oxford English Dictionary dates this to 1616).

Grammar snobbery is a phenomenon with a long history, it seems.