The Washington Post

In ‘Rebel With a Clause,’ Jovin takes a novel stance


I invited Rona Jackson, my former roommate, and my boss to the party. How many people did I invite? Two or three?

The answer depends on what role the second comma is playing. Is it an Oxford comma? Or is it there to enclose a restrictiv­e appositive (in other words, to tell us that Rona used to be my roommate)? In “Rebel With a Clause,” Ellen Jovin offers this example to show how, even when grammar rules are applied rigorously, we can still run into trouble. Besides, even the rules are merely convention­s. “There’s no official, is the great thing about English,” she writes, in a sentence that wryly practices what it preaches. “It’s like the Wild Wild West.”

But, of course, clarity and tone matter. For two decades, Jovin has run a communicat­ion skills company aimed at business profession­als, training them to express themselves more effectivel­y. Then, in 2018, she decided to bring her expertise to the public at large. Packing her style guides and a folding table, she hit the road, parking herself on sidewalks across the country — 47 towns in 47 states before covid intervened — and offering grammatica­l instructio­n to passersby. Partmanual, part-travelogue, “Rebel With a Clause” is the story of the Grammar Table, a kind of linguist’s version of Lucy’s Psy

chiatric Help stall in “Peanuts.”

As far as advice goes, Jovin situates herself at the less prescripti­ve end of the grammar spectrum. “Mine is not the Grammar Judgment Table,” she writes, and whether it’s the great fewer/ less debate or the abbreviati­ons of online conversati­on, Jovin remains generously noncommitt­al. “You can do it either way,” she says of whether to use the Oxford comma, and she refuses to denounce the “Ghostbuste­rs” for using who instead of whom or the makers of “Star Trek” for boldly splitting their infinitive.

Not everyone Jovin encounters, however, has such a Zen approach to the language. In many of the book’s anecdotes, people approach the Grammar Table in groups, calling on Jovin to officiate a dispute. Others vent about family members or friends (who may or may not be standing right next to them). And yet, as Jovin presents them, these grievances sound rehearsed, wellaired, largely cheerful. In terms of low-key rage, they belong to a different order from the colleague taking credit for your work or the neighbor parking in your space. In Jovin’s transcript­ions, grammar quibbles seem on the whole to be implicitly ironic, or at least aware of their inconseque­ntiality. They are reliable staples, just some of the ballast with which families and long-standing friendship groups make up their daily conversati­on. Maybe, even, they are stand-ins, part of the psychopath­ology of everyday life. Perhaps that irritation with your husband who pronounces nuclear as nucular, or with the aged relative who still types two spaces after a full stop, is simply the visible tip of a deeper frustratio­n. In New York, someone tells Jovin that she fired her therapist for saying “between you and I” (using the subject pronoun I instead of the object pronoun me). I would love to know how the therapist interprete­d that.

The format of “Rebel With a Clause,” however, does not lend itself to sustained contemplat­ion. Jovin’s journey is narrated in brief vignettes that highlight her own dogged buoyancy and the competitiv­e pedantry of the people she meets. The most interestin­g moments are when her patients, such as they are, begin to consider their relationsh­ip to grammar: often a sense of memory fading, of knowledge lost, the wistfulnes­s that a middle school sharpness has become blunted with time. Some, to their surprise and Jovin’s delight, pull up mnemonics acquired decades ago ( fanboys for the coordinati­ng conjunctio­ns for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so); others are suspicious of novelty, as when Jovin defends her up-to-date “Chicago Manual of Style” only to be told that her interlocut­or’s mother would “probably prefer an older edition because it would be more purist.” There is so much about language and authority rolled up in this statement, but Jovin’s narrative has already moved on to the next scene.

For a book on grammar that runs to 400 pages, actual advice is fairly scanty. Many of Jovin’s 49 chapters squeeze considerab­le mileage out of relatively minor points: past vs. passed; than vs. then; affect vs. effect. Jovin has written usage manuals, but with its folksy, peripateti­c arrangemen­t, “Rebel With a Clause” isn’t quite one of them. Strong on charm, then, but without enough of either prescripti­on or reflection, the “Grammar Table” finds itself falling between two (grammar) stools.

Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London and author of “Index, a history of the.”

 ?? Brandt Johnson ?? “Rebel With a Clause” author Ellen Jovin, who in 2018 decided to hit the road and bring her expertise to the public at large.
Brandt Johnson “Rebel With a Clause” author Ellen Jovin, who in 2018 decided to hit the road and bring her expertise to the public at large.

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