Ellen Jovin is not the grammar police.
She’s more like a grammar guru, a gentle, non-judgmental guide who knows English isn’t etched into a linguistic stone, rigid and unchangeable. Instead, she knows it’s a living, evolving thing whose rules are subject to the wants, needs and whims of those who speak and write it.
Though she is hardly a Strunk & White scold, Jovin is so invested in English as an interactive pursuit she’s not only written a book about it (“Rebel With a Clause,” HarperCollins), she’ll set up a table just to talk shop, answer questions or geek out with fellow word nerds. Her husband, Brandt Johnson, also a writer, is working on a documentary film about the Grammar Table.
“I treasure everything about language,” Jovin said. And she enjoys sharing that passion with others, no matter their own relationship to words. “It’s about love for the language in all the forms it comes to us − slang, departures from traditional grammar, what words mean and how that can change. It’s fun.”
Jovin has taken the Grammar Table to all 50 states since 2018 (she has stops planned for Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona, in February) and is often in parks in New York City, where she lives. A longtime educator, consultant and writer, Jovin started the Grammar Table as a way to get away from a computer screen − where grammatical rules have degraded almost as much, it seems, as personal and political discourse.
“I knew people were curious about (language) and I spent so much time nerding out (online) and getting cranky,” Jovin said. “The point of language is to connect with other people.”
‘Rebel With a Clause’ author is ‘not like your old schoolteacher’
Jandene Wong is one of the people Jovin’s connected with (yes, Jovin said, it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition). A pediatrician at Stanford University and “self-admitted grammar nerd,” Wong loved “Rebel With a Clause” so much, she found the author’s website and reached out via email. She was delighted when Jovin wrote back.
Wong thinks so highly of Jovin − and grammar, apparently − that she took time out of her vacation in Hawaii to talk to USA TODAY. When she visits New York, she finds out where Jovin will be with the Grammar Table and makes a point of stopping by to talk.
“Her writing is so humorous and fun,” said Wong, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. “She knows the rules but she also goes with the times and the trends. She’s not a person who says, ‘You have to do this or you have to do that.’ She wants to know, ‘What would you do?’ She knows modern language. She’s not like your old schoolteacher.”
One thing Jovin does that’s reminiscent of an old schoolteacher, though, is diagramming sentences. Her Instagram (@grammartable) includes posts from her travels as well as a couple of quick diagrams of pop songs’ lyrics, including Pink Floyd’s grammatically challenged “Another Brick in the Wall” and Vampire Weekend’s salty song “Oxford Comma.”
And if you think diagramming is a relic as old as a ruler-wielding Catholic school nun, think again.
Ninth grade students at High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx learn how to diagram sentences as part of their English curriculum, said the school’s principal, Alessandro Weiss.
Jovin visited the school last year and will be back again this year.
“Ellen is excited about language,” Weiss said, and that’s something HSAS educators want students to share. “We want our students to find joy in language, and to understand how it’s open to change.”
Diagramming not only helps students understand sentence structure and grammatical rules, it illustrates how much precision matters. Students can see misplaced modifiers, stray prepositions and the dreaded dangling participle more easily when it’s mapped out on a series of straight lines.
“We want our students to learn,” Weiss said, “but more importantly, we want them to be attentive to the precision of words, to structuring a sentence with eloquence, to show clearly to the reader what’s modifying what, and to revel in the mess that is the English language.”
‘Words are the thing that connects us’
A native Californian, Jovin said people all over have been receptive, polite and more than a little curious when she sets up her table, even in New York, a place not always known for its friendliness.
People confide to her about their verbal insecurities. They confess to feeling less educated or not as smart, or feeling like the accents or phases they grew up with mark them as provincial or backward.
“A lot of language stories are very personal,” Jovin said. “But people can be too hard on themselves. Usually, they’re better communicators than they think,” so she tries to be a reassuring voice, setting their minds at ease.
“What I love most is when people march right up to the table and ask a question,” she said. People ask questions like how to address a holiday card (The Joneses, not the Jones’s or Jones’; or simply, The Jones Family) or try to settle their own grammatical disagreements.
“But a lot of times, I just get, ‘Why are you doing this?'” she said.
The answer is in a shirt she often wears at the table: “Grammar Hedonism.”
“I just feel happier after I talk with a stranger,” she said. “Words are the things that connect us.”
Phaedra Trethan is a fellow word nerd who asked her editors to be extra thorough while working on this story about a grammarian. She’s encountered her share of ruler-wielding nuns but still loved diagramming sentences. Contact her by email at email@example.com or on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra.