The Grammarphobia Blog

Comment, please?

Q: Would you kindly explain why people who comment on the news are called “commentators” and not “commentors.” This seems inconsistent with the usual constructs: “builders” build, “sailors” sail, “programmers” program, and (one would expect) “commentors” comment.

A: One would expect so, wouldn’t one? But English has its surprises.

In fact, you’ll surprised to learn that “commentor” and “commenter” used to be fairly common words in the 17th century for someone who comments, but they’re considered obsolete today.

Both nouns are quite old. The earliest published reference for “commentor” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates all the way back to 1387. The first “commenter” is in Donne’s Satire 2 (circa 1593): “As slily as any Commenter goes by / Hard words, or sense; or in Divinity.”

Interestingly, the word “commentator” is pretty old too, with OED citations dating back to the 1400s, when it referred to a writer of historical commentaries. By the 17th century, the word was being used more generally to include a writer of literary, religious, or other commentaries.

In the early 20th century, the term was extended to broadcasting and sports, as in this excerpt from a 1928 BBC handbook: “In addition to expert knowledge, the sporting commentator must also obviously have a good voice and great fluency.”

The first citation for “commentator” as one who comments about current events on radio or TV is from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s1938 Book of the Year: “Experienced radio commentators are free to voice every kind of opinion.”

Oh, yeah?

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