Grammar Lessons From a Former Adjunct Turned ‘Public Grammarian’
A lively new book tackles the Oxford comma, the “unjustified vilification” of “me,” and other language matters.
Not every academic is a grammar geek. Yet most of us have pet peeves that tend to irk us when we spot them in our students’ work. And we’re spotting them more than ever, thanks to the hit that students’ skills took in the pandemic. For me, grammar is a language that I play by ear so I can easily correct errors. But I am often at a loss to explain why certain phrasings are right or wrong. I know I’m not alone in that.
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Not every academic is a grammar geek. Yet most of us have pet peeves that tend to irk us when we spot them in our students’ work. And we’re spotting them more than ever, thanks to the hit that students’ skills took in the pandemic. For me, grammar is a language that I play by ear, so I can easily correct errors. But I am often at a loss to explain why certain phrasings are right or wrong. I know I’m not alone in that.
That’s why a new book, Rebel With a Clause: Tales and Tips From a Roving Grammarian, by Ellen Jovin, has attracted plenty of attention. A former adjunct who now teaches writing in the corporate world, Jovin knows how to explain grammar in ways both clear and delightful. Rebel With a Clause is a lively book that will appeal to many academics, whether you are looking for help in your own writing or in the classroom (even for those who don’t think it’s their job to teach writing). This is a book you could assign students or read yourself for ideas on improving how you evaluate students’ written work.
At heart, Jovin is a big old grammar nerd, too — but of the joyful, exuberant sort. In 2018 she set herself up in a park on New York’s Upper West Side with a handmade sign that read “Grammar Table” and waited for people to come and ask her questions. Ask they did. She and her husband, Brandt Johnson, then hit the road, visiting 47 states to attend to the grammar emergencies of passersby.
The interview that follows is based on our conversations and email exchanges (where I worried over every comma and colon, even though Ellen is no judgy, fusty grammarian).
How did you come up with the idea for the Grammar Table?
Jovin: It first popped into my brain around July of 2018, when I was growing tired of spending so much time online. I had spent the previous nine years studying 25-plus languages, blogging about them, and blabbing about language topics with other language nerds on social media. But too much computer time is bad for me.
For me there is no such thing as small talk. Small talk is big talk, layers upon layers of meaning and connection. The Grammar Table zipped into my head quickly as a concept, so once I thought of it, there were only two obstacles remaining: (1) whether I needed a permit, which it turned out I didn’t, and (2) how long I had to wait for the weather to be less hot. I took the Grammar Table out on the streets of Manhattan for the first time in September 2018.
What in your educational background prepared you to do this?
Jovin: I majored in German at Harvard and then studied comparative literature in a master’s program at UCLA. I’ve also been teaching writing and grammar for most of my adult life.
From 1990 to 1994, I taught English as an adjunct at a bunch of colleges, among them New York University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Queensborough Community College. For the past two decades, I have been teaching adults through Syntaxis, the communication-skills training company that Brandt and I started together. I teach business-writing, grammar, and email-etiquette workshops for employees of our clients — mostly corporations but also government organizations and nonprofits.
What grammar questions do you find yourself answering repeatedly?
Jovin: “What are your views on the Oxford comma?” That is the No. 1 question, by far. People who ask about it usually care about the Oxford comma a lot, and they sometimes approach me, concerned I will not support their ways. I do, in fact, currently use Oxford commas, though I don’t mind at all if other people don’t.
I am also asked pretty regularly about semicolons, singular “they,” and commonly confused words such as “lie” and “lay.” But the topics I am asked about are so wide-ranging. My book has 49 chapters on all kinds of grammar and language subjects that people have approached me about. I just realized right this minute, by the way, that my chapter count matches exactly with the number of places I have set up the Grammar Table all over the country: 49 cities and towns in 47 states. But that’s just a coincidence. Or is it?
What grammar “rules” do people want to argue about?
Jovin: People are perhaps most consistently resistant to these three notions:
- That it is grammatical to end a sentence with a preposition, no matter what you were taught in Ms. Johnson’s eighth-grade English class.
- That you can use a plural verb with “none” (it can mean not only “not one” but also “not any,” so go for it!).
- Finally, that “further” and not just “farther” is legitimately in use for distances.
In addition, some people want me to agree that no one cares about grammar, that young people are ruining grammar, that texting and social media are ruining grammar, and that people writing for newspapers are ruining grammar — and I don’t. I don’t agree at all. I don’t mind being a sounding board for strangers, though, so it all works out in the end, because the end usually involves laughter, and I want grammar to be a good time.
What are some hard and fast rules, tips, and tricks?
Jovin: People spend a lot of time worrying about tiny details. It is natural to worry about details, which is why I think it’s good to learn about this stuff. That way people can focus more on important brain work and less on, say, which participle form is the preferred one. Many of the details that people puzzle over the most are gray areas — where multiple things can be considered correct.
Here are some small-detail tips:
- The Oxford comma is the comma before an “and” or “or” preceding the last item in a list, as in: Marta argued with the writing-center instructor about the title, the first paragraph, and the conclusion of the paper. You will not see many Oxford commas in newspapers. You are more likely to encounter them in books. Even if you don’t normally use the Oxford comma, it’s great to include it if it helps with clarity. For example, this is hard to read without the Oxford comma: Odin ordered steak, mashed potatoes and gravy and macaroni and cheese. Add a comma after “gravy,” and boom! So much easier for the reader. Now don’t worry that this is going to violate your perfect 100-percent Oxford-comma-abstention record. Consistency is good, but it needs to bow before clarity. We’re not in grammar prison here.
- There is no grammar rule about number format. In fact, that’s not even grammar: It’s just a style decision and can vary based on the content and audience. In books and dialogue, you may see numbers written out: “I’ve walked eighteen miles to talk to you,” Maurice told Patrice with a sob. But most people I encounter seem to follow what also happens to be Associated Press style, which governs a lot of what you see in newspapers: They write the numbers one through nine as words and after that usually switch to 10, 11, 12, and so on. Don’t think these are absolutes, though, because they’re not. In your life you will almost surely encounter references at some point to “10%” of something, “10 percent” of something, and “ten percent” of something — and all are acceptable.
- Many people have trouble remembering whether it’s Chris’s dogs or Chris’ dogs. Both are correct. I prefer the first version. I don’t say “Chris dog” for the possessive, no matter how I write it. My possessive always sounds like “Chrisses dog,” so I feel adding “’s” to indicate that makes logical sense.
- There are multiple types of horizontal lines used in writing, and they have different names. The hyphen is the name of the tiniest line, and it connects words in phrases such as “first-year student,” appears in nouns such as “well-being,” and shows up at the end of a line when a word breaks and is continued on the following line. A dash — often referred to as an em dash by editorial types — is what you see twice in this sentence. There are also en dashes, often used in books and sometimes used in magazines, but not often used in newspapers, so I won’t spend time on them here except to say that you see them a lot in ranges (100–150 chocolate chips) and sports scores (a 21–3 halftime lead).
What are your favorite grammar resources?
Jovin: I am an absolute resource queen. I love books and reference materials, and it hurts my heart to have to pick only a few, but these are probably the ones I use the most:
- Garner’s Modern English Usage, by Bryan A. Garner
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition
We all have pet peeves when it comes to grammar and punctuation. What (if any) are yours?
Jovin: I try not to have peeves. It’s not enjoyable, first of all. Besides, people have peeves about other people’s peeves, and about the people who have them, and you can end up in one giant peeve-fest if you don’t put your foot down early and often.
What I do care about is when an effort to sound “proper” leads to artificiality or to pompous-sounding errors. Unjustified “me” vilification, for example, causes things like Please tell John and myself when you’re done or Feel free to contact Albert or I. Both the “myself” and the “I” in those sentences should be “me.” What did “me” ever do to deserve all this hostility?
What are some of the strangest questions you’ve been asked?
Jovin: In Detroit I was asked how to get a red stain out of a white carpet. Also, tiny children in two different cities asked me what a gerund was, which I found suspicious. In each case a complicit adult was lurking nearby.
On occasion I am asked questions whose wording contains so much grammar jargon that I immediately know the person already knows the answer and is there just to quiz me. When I ask, they even admit it! Those people will walk right up to me without a greeting and say something like “What first-person singular pronoun would you use for a direct object?” (Answer: “me.”) Or “Tell me the difference between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive relative clause,” which would take a chapter to explain properly, which I do in my just-published book.
Have you considered setting up your table on college campuses, where I’m sure you’d be swamped with faculty members as well as students?
Jovin: I’ve done it! Pre-pandemic, I spent hours at a few different campuses, including during a family weekend at Middlebury College, where I talked with students, faculty, and administrators about grammar and language. I even talked to the students’ parents and grandparents. I have great respect for scholarship, and ideally I’d like the Grammar Table to be a place where ideas are brought into communities, and communities are brought into ideas.