In Verdi Square, on the Upper West Side, Ellen Jovin once met a “footnote fetishist,” a “fashionably dressed young woman” with a tattoo of the footnote “7 ibid” on — logically — her foot.
Jovin, a grammar fiend herself, hadn’t merely stumbled upon the self-proclaimed footnote fanatic. She’d designed the encounter — with the Grammar Table, a folding table at which she doles out grammatical advice, answers and understanding. Now, she’s put many of the encounters on the page in her book, “Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian,” to be published by Mariner Books on July 19.
Equipped with the idea for a grammar book that would differ from the rest, Jovin took the Grammar Table, which had mostly made appearances in Verdi Square, on the road. Her mission to visit every U.S. state was cut short only by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Alaska, Connecticut and Hawaii still to be checked off the list. “Rebel with a Clause,” one culmination of those trips (a Grammar Table documentary filmed by Jovin’s husband, Brandt Johnson, is still in the works), tackles some of the most universal grammatical questions and qualms. It digs into the joy that comes from knowing, using — and sometimes breaking — the rules and paints portraits of the people who speak grammar into existence.
“When I first thought of doing the Grammar Table, I was not at all thinking of a book; I was thinking pure, linguistic hedonism,” Jovin said. “It was fun, it was like a grammar party.”
Born In Verdi Square
The Upper West Side, Jovin told The Spirit, was the perfect birthplace for the Grammar Table. “I feel like this is the highest density of grammar nerds practically anywhere in the world,” she said. “Alright, I take that back — anywhere in the U.S.”
In Verdi Square, pre-pandemic, it wasn’t a lack of people that presented any obstacle, but challenges like heat or rain — or loud street buskers — that impacted her schedule. “I can mostly speak over opera,” Jovin said, “but drumming is a little harder.”
Grammar isn’t exclusive to the Upper West Side, and seeing more of the country would make for a compelling story, Jovin thought, so she started traveling, equipped with a book contract, plus grammar guides in English and other languages, too.
Putting Grammar Woes To Bed
In total, she covered 27,658 miles with the Grammar Table. She traveled by car, by plane, by train, by boat and by foot. She set up shop on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles, at Temple Square in Salt Lake City and outside St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.
And she put some long-standing grammar woes to bed.
In the third chapter of her new book, Jovin settles the differences between “affect” and “effect” (both of which can be used as nouns or verbs, by the way). In Chapter 11, she sorts out when one ought to use “lay” or “lie” (hint: one requires a direct object). And in Chapter 39, she explains how and when to use “whom” instead of “who” (which calls for a bit more grammatical knowledge to get right). “I have a master’s degree,” one Grammar Table visitor told Jovin, as documented in her book, “and I don’t get the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ Isn’t that terrible?”
Jovin accompanies some grammatical explanations in “Rebel with a Clause” with doodles and diagrams, as she’s apt to do even over Zoom, which she uses to teach grammar classes via her company Syntaxis. At the end of each chapter, there’s a “quizlet.”
Sometimes, straight-up answers are all that people are really searching for, after all. “They just want to know what the best thing is to do so they can move on and enjoy their life and get the job done,” she said.
When A Rule Isn’t A Rule
Other times, Jovin leans happily into what might come as a shock — an attitude that grammar can be flexible, not quite as some recall it from their school days.
Take, as perhaps the most ready example, the Oxford comma. “Whether I am sitting out there in the cold, the heat, the morning, the evening, a big city, or a tiny town, there is one thing I am approached about more than any other topic, by far, and that is the Oxford comma,” Jovin wrote as the first line of the first chapter in her new book. The special comma that comes before “and” or “or” at the end of a list has diehard supporters — and non-users who become the subject of that former camp’s ire. Jovin herself admits to using or foregoing the Oxford comma situationally.
Her book is filled with footnotes defending other grammatical choices, too, that may seem unkosher, like ending sentences with prepositions or starting them with “because.”
Grammar doesn’t have to be about a “grammarian wielding the grammar,” at least as Jovin sees it. “If a rule can be broken all the time, then it’s not actually a rule,” she said.
“There Will Be No Fists”
Sometimes, she refrains from weighing in on issues that get Grammar Table visitors particularly heated. As described in her book, table visitors giggle together, admit their own insecurities and light up when a new concept clicks. They also chide one another, rant about trends they’ve observed and leave, on occasion, in a huff.
But battles are hardly serious. “This is a facilitated grammar discussion,” Jovin said. “I’m standing there and I’m not going to let anything go too crazy. There will be no fists at the Grammar Table.”
“If people are arguing about a comma, they’re not going to go home and block each other on social media or refuse to go to family dinners anymore,” she added.
From her Upper West Side apartment over Zoom, with a wall of grammar books behind her — organized alphabetically by language, from Albanian to Zulu — Jovin offhandedly mentioned the possibility of putting Grammar Table-style explanations on TikTok. But when pressed, she decided it’s not all that likely. She’d rather “be out in the light and air talking to people in real life.”
“When I first thought of doing the Grammar Table, I was not at all thinking of a book; I was thinking pure, linguistic hedonism.” Ellen Jovin