‘The Grammarians’ by Cathleen Schine – A Fiction For Those Who Delight in Words


‘The Grammarians’ by Cathleen Schine (2019) – 258 pages

‘The Grammarians’ is a novel about a family with identical twin daughters, Laurel and Daphne, who both grow up to love words. Their father is prescient enough to buy the still very young daughters a complete old edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and install it on a stand in their family den. Thanks to the dictionary, the daughters share a fascination with the meaning and use of words which continues through their entire lives. They both become word mavens. Daphne becomes a columnist, the Miss Manners of modern speech”, who writes a popular column on the use and abuse of words. The other daughter Laurel, after a long stint of motherhood, becomes a poet of sorts.

One of the several charms of ‘The Grammarians’ is the witty word play the two girls bring to their conversation. Each chapter begins with the definition and usage of a word taken from the Samuel Johnson dictionary. Usually the words are ones that have fallen out of usage or that one or more of their meanings have fallen out of usage.

BABERY. n. s. [from babe] finery to please a babe or child.

Other words that are used to start chapters are: conversableness, scrine, collectitious, to swop, disbranch, edacious. We have lost many of these useful words as the English language has become streamlined. The twin girls use a lot of these dropped words in their conversations.

Daphne said, “Grammar makes you respect words. Every individual word. You make sure it’s in the place where it feels the most comfortable and does its job best.”

Here is Daphne’s riff on the word “Tight”:

She loved the word “tight”. It meant so many different things that were all somehow the same thing. Tight muscles. Tight with money. Money is tight. The organization is tight and well run. Tight friends. Tight-lipped. Hold tight. Sleep tight. Of course it also means tipsy, which makes less sense. And apparently it meant cool too. Better than “groovy,” anyway, a word she shamefully remembered using freely. A kind of progress, then, in the world.”

The other twin sister Laurel thinks the following about the word “Deadline”:

The components of the word “deadline” struck her. A line that is dead. No, a line that you must not cross or you will be shot dead. From prisons in the Civil War. Was that right? She would look it up later.”

Later the twin sisters have a falling out, a philosophical difference in their approaches to words, that causes these very close identical twin sisters to avoid each other for several years.

‘The Grammarians’ is a light, humorous, witty novel which I entirely enjoyed, and I’m quite sure most ‘word’ persons will enjoy it.


Grade:    A


4 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds like fun…
    One of our Australian authors did something similar with the words from a piece of legislation. Marie Munkara is an Indigenous woman from up north, who wrote a novel satirising the provisions of the Native Protection Act, and it’s very effective.



  2. I agree with Lisa: sounds fun. I’m a big fan of Johnson’s dictionary. Don’t possess a copy of the whole thing, but do have two sets of extracts, which I love dipping into. The Introduction is worth reading in its own right; a great insight into the view of language in the mid-18C – and some of his more prescriptive attitudes haven’t changed much.



    • Hi Tredynas Days,
      Well, you would be the ideal reader of ‘The Grammarians’. The only person who could be more ideal is my daughter who is a copy editor and also has one year old twins, but she is probably too busy to read the novel. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person


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