I’ve sometimes idly wondered why so many people feel so strongly about grammar and the particular ways we write and speak. Think of the Twitter wars over the Oxford comma and Facebook arguments over em dashes, rants about spaces after periods or the current rock star status of Benjamin Dreyer, author of the best-selling “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” Why so much passion?
Ellen Jovin asked these questions, too, but she put in a great deal more energy. She’s a professional writer and editor in New York City, mecca of language nerds, but last year, she noticed that she spent an inordinate amount of time online arguing about grammar.
“Last summer, I was feeling a kind of exhaustion, so I said enough of this, we need more human contact,” she said. She ordered her table, set it up outside and attached a homemade cardboard sign “Grammar Table.”
New York being New York, she was soon inundated with questions, complaints and comments wherever she set up. The New York Times noted two brothers who got in a fight over gerunds. People also frequently talked to her about the possessive apostrophe after a name that ends in S, and got peeved about “more than” versus “over.”
“People do get attached to a certain way of doing things,” Jovin said. “Language is central to how we think of ourselves, and people want to do better. It’s never a boring thing, it’s very exciting and goofy, you can totally nerd out at the grammar table.”
Although the Twitterverse loves to mock Donald Trump’s spelling and grammar, Jovin loves the apolitical nature of grammar.
“It generally isn’t political and that’s why it’s been so happiness-inducing to me,” she said. “I can talk to anyone about language, it doesn’t have to descend into an acrimonious fight about our most deeply held beliefs. Two people working cooperatively over this language puzzle, I always go home happy.”
Also New York being New York, she soon had a book contract, and then a plan to take Grammar Table out on the road.
On Thursday, her travels brought her to Lexington, where she set up Grammar Table outside the 5/3 Pavilion at Cheapside with her husband, Brandt Johnson, who is also filming a documentary about Grammar Table. (Jovin wore a thematic t-shirt, although only for people of a certain age: Three commas and a chameleon, get it?)
When she’s on the road, she likes to ask people about regional language. In Ohio previously, the most common question was about “ain’t,” and whether it’s a word. It is.
“I don’t like when people use grammar as a way to put other people down, because of the legitimacy of regional differences,” Jovin said.
One visitor at Cheapside, Scott Harrison Westfalls, told her about how roaming buffalo created the name of Stamping Ground in Scott County, and asked her the meaning of idiom.
“That’s a great question,” Jovin responded. “Are you a plant?”
“I’m only part plant, I’m vegan,” Westfalls, pulling a bologna sandwich out of his pack.
Idiom, incidentally, is an arrangement of words whose meaning is a little unusual, Jovin said.
Another Grammar Table visitor, Janette Villalobos, said she had a complaint.
“Why is it wrong to end a sentence in a preposition?” she asked.
“It’s not,” responded Jovin.
“I knew it!” Villalobos said, stomping her foot.
That rule is old-fashioned, Jovin explained, making its way into the English language by way of Latin, even though English is Germanic, not a Romance language.
For example, Jovin said, you’d never say “That is the book about which I was speaking.”
“I wouldn’t say that because then I would have no friends.”
Villalobos walked away happy, which met all Jovin’s requirements for Grammar Table: “I want grammar need to meet grammar satisfaction.”
On Thursday afternoon, Jovin and Johnson were headed to Morgantown, W.Va., before stopping in Maryland and then points south on the Grammar Table tour, healing America one gerund at a time.
“There’s catharsis in solving the problems that come to Grammar Table,” Jovin said, “and that reminds people of the things we have in common.”
Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.