On a September day in 2018, Ellen Jovin left her apartment in Manhattan and went to the street outside the 72nd Street subway station to set up a folding table and a sign identifying it as the Grammar Table, inviting questions, comments, and complaints, along with opportunities to vent.
Public interest proved so strong that she and her husband, Brandt, took the Grammar Table around the country--to forty-seven states, Covid isolation thwarting their plan to make all fifty. Her exchanges with ordinary citizens over grammar and usage are now summed up in Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian (Mariner Books, 374 pages, $26.99).
People, she discovered, are curious about grammar, ill-informed and uncertain about grammar, and sometimes dogmatic about grammar, occasionally giving her the Grammar Side Eye despite the presence on the table of references such as the Chicago Manual of Style and Garner's Modern English Usage to buttress her explanations.
Her fifty brief chapters cover nearly all the issues that commonly come up, and her explanations are clear and reliable. There's a great deal on punctuation: the common comma, the mysterious semicolon, the intrusive apostrophe. She finds it helpful to answer inquiries by making a chart to illustrate the differences of effect (noun and verb) and affect (verb and noun) or to write out the conjugations of lie and lay. She herself usually tries to write around singular they, but acknowledges that it has been widespread in English since Alfred burned the cakes.
But the richness of the book comes from the people, who are straightforward about their perplexities and grateful for explanation. There's the man in Annapolis who doesn't care for swearing but is delighted to be informed that the technical term for inserting one of them in the middle of another word is infix. There are the two young men drunk at noonday in Decatur, Alabama, who occupy much of an afternoon on a variety of topics. There are people all over the country who say that they are bad at grammar, that they always hated grammar, that they are afraid of being mocked for their grammar.
So much of people's uncertainties about grammar and usage rise from bad pedagogy. Many of the things that people think they know about grammar and usage, Ms. Jovin writes, are half-remembered "things you were told when your shoe size was changing annually." There are the perpetual zombie rules about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. She says, "Prohibitions from childhood, unfortunately, are like grass stains on white pants; they resist efforts to scrub them away."
But over and over in this delightful book, the light dawns with the offer of a concise explanation, and the recipient relishes a sense of greater understanding and mastery over their own language, of possession. In a world where writing about English usage can reflect a sense of an embattled elite surrounded by rabble, this book relishes our common humanity, our understanding that our language is what we collectively make of it. It is refreshing to see. People love language.
Not all questions about usage can be readily resolved. A recurring point in the book, for example, is people's comfort with, or discomfort with, the object pronoun me used as a subject, the subject pronoun I used as an object, and the reflexive pronoun myself stuck in where it doesn't belong. Ms. Jovin's counsel about these matters should stay with us: "It's going to continue in spite of our wishes, so it's important to achieve a sense of inner peace about it."