“Grammar Zen”


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New Yorkers talk tricky tenses, punctuation passions and more at Ellen Jovin's UWS pop-up table


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  • “Are you a word person?” Ellen Jovin often asks visitors as they approach her pop-up language workshop at 72nd Street. Photo: Michael Garofalo



“The stereotype of a grammarian is 'I tell you what's right,' and I don't want it to be like that. I learn from people all the time.”

Ellen Jovin, founder of Grammar Table



By Michael Garofalo

Are you prepositionally challenged? Hesitant around hyphens? Undergoing a comma crisis? Simply enraptured by the beauty of a well-placed ellipsis?

Ellen Jovin wants to talk grammar with you.

Jovin has become familiar to Upper West Side word lovers in recent weeks as the face and founder of Grammar Table — a public forum for open-ended discussion of all things language. Armed with a folding table and an array of reference books and style guides, Jovin sets up shop near the northern entrance to the 72nd Street subway station on Broadway to dole out complimentary (with an “i”) pointers, guidance and emotional support to all comers, from devoted syntacticians to the downright grammar-averse.

“Hi, this looks lit,” a young woman said on a recent afternoon as she approached Grammar Table (lately Jovin has been trying out the name without the definite article). The woman introduced herself as a fifth-grade English teacher, and soon discovered that she had found a kindred soul in Jovin. A spirited conversation on the joys of sentence diagrams ensued.

A steady stream of passersby paused in the midst of the rush hour scrum to gaze curiously at the Grammar Table sign. Some were wary; others, perhaps emboldened by the inclusion of “Vent!” in the sign's menu of services, had bones to pick.

“Dangling modifiers! Why?” a man cried from afar, clenching his fists in anguish.

Em dashes — do we overuse them? “It's really easy to get sucked into,” another visitor observed.

A punctilious student and his mother inquired about apostrophe placement in “Indigenous Peoples' Day.” (Grammar Table consensus settled on the rendering that appears in the previous sentence, but other credible sources, including The New York Times, opt to dispense with the possessive entirely.)

An editor lamented writers' aversion to semicolons. She explained, “A semicolon has a very specific use; there's a reason to use it and a reason not to.”

She went on to gripe about commentators on the Tennis Channel, who, she said, seem to have forgotten how to use adverbs (“He should have hit it more aggressive.”). She identified Tracy Austin as the worst offender and possible patient zero of the epidemic.

Jovin, who is a corporate communications consultant by trade, first took her passion to the public in September. “This summer I was feeling like I was on the computer too much,” she said. “I felt like my societal experience was becoming atomized and I decided to bring it to the street. It took literally 30 seconds for someone to come up to me the first day.”

Grammar Table has since become a semi-regular presence in Verdi Square on weekend afternoons and weekday evenings. Jovin, who lives nearby, has found the exercise to be a welcome diversion from politics and the constant onslaught of the news cycle. “New York City is full of seriously bummed-out people right now,” she said, but grammar gets people chatting.

“It's light,” she said. “Even though people get a little bit excited about the Oxford comma, they usually don't go into a rage and block people on Facebook over it.”

Grammar Table discussions aren't limited to English. Jovin, who describes herself as a “compulsive language student,” has studied over 20 languages and likes to practice her skills whenever opportunity allows.

“Jak się masz?” she called in greeting at one point to a passing Polish acquaintance.

“Bardzo dobrze,” he cheerily replied.

Grammar Table's most hotly debated topic? The aforementioned Oxford comma, the punctuation mark before “and” in a list of three or more items. “By far,” Jovin said. “No competition.”

“That and the spacing after periods are the two most emotional issues in any discussion of punctuation,” she explained.

Proponents hail the Oxford comma for the additional clarity and precision it sometimes affords. Those who prefer a cleaner aesthetic tend to side against it. “What's the point?” a woman in a fatigue jacket with a Woodstock patch asked, incredulous that anyone would sully a page with an unnecessary mark.

Jovin herself doesn't get too worked up about it. “I use it myself but I don't really care if other people do,” she said.

(This reporter cannot say the same. Bound by his editors' deference to the sometimes oppressive strictures of the Associated Press Stylebook, he is obliged, against his wishes, convictions and better judgment, to omit the righteous comma.)

Jovin's stance on the most controversial comma in the English language is characteristic: Grammar Table prioritizes dialog over dogma. “The stereotype of a grammarian is 'I tell you what's right,' and I don't want it to be like that,” she said. “I learn from people all the time.”

“There's a lot of grey area in language, where there's not really right or wrong,” she said. “I think it's fun to live with a certain amount of uncertainty and variety.”

“I've achieved a state of grammar Zen. I'm at peace.”





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