Grammar nerds are in for a real treat at this year’s Islanders Write. New Yorker Ellen Jovin will set up her “Grammar Table” at the event at Featherstone Center for the Arts on Monday, August 12, and she’d love to hear from you. And don’t worry, Jovin’s not there to critique anyone.
“I think it’s very bad etiquette to correct people unless they ask,” Jovin told The Times in a phone conversation last week. “I’m not super-pedantic about this. I disappoint very conservative grammarians.”
This summer she is traveling around the northern U.S. with the table, collecting grammar anecdotes for a book she is writing, while her husband and business partner, Brandt Johnson, films “Grammar Table: The Movie.” The camera will be rolling at Islanders Write.
Jovin said last summer she began contemplating the idea of setting up a table outside her Upper West Side apartment building with the intention of engaging people in conversation about grammar. She only waited until September to do it, she said, because she’s not a fan of the summer heat.
With a bachelor’s degree in German studies from Harvard and a master’s in comparative literature from UCLA, Jovin seems the perfect person to sit at the Grammar Table. She says she’s studied a couple of dozen languages “for fun,” and she’s spent years teaching writing and language arts. Language is something Jovin’s already deep into, so setting up the Grammar Table seemed organic, she said. (Her Grammar Table is actually a double-entendre, she reminded me, since there is an actual grammar table that’s used as a resource to check proper grammar usage.) Jovin was already engaged in the world of grammar, she just wanted to take it into the real world, into the streets.
It took about 30 seconds before the first person walked up to the folding table she set up outside the West 72nd Street subway station that first day in September.
“Normally people come up to me a lot,” she said. “I don’t sit alone very often. I sometimes get writers coming up to me; they feel comfortable talking about grammar. I’ve always loved languages and writing, and I’ve studied grammar across all different languages, so I know more than the average person about a variety of languages. And I love reading old grammar books, 18th, 19th, and 20th century books.” Jovin will have reference books at the ready during Islanders Write, in case she can’t answer a question someone might ask. Even though she is serious about grammar, Jovin doesn’t take herself too seriously.
“Someone sent me some ‘grammar police’ pencils, and they’re really cute, but they’re not really me,” Jovin said. “I make conversation with people, I enjoy talking to people, and I don’t feel judgmental. The fact that I have a Grammar Table doesn’t mean I’m all serious about it. It’s almost more like a grammar party out there.”
The No. 1 question Jovin gets asked? “No competition,” she says. “There’s a No. 1 question, and then the others are in the distance. I get asked about the Oxford comma all the time.” Jovin said she thinks the reason why the term sticks in everyone’s mind is because there’s a name attached to it. (The Oxford comma, or serial comma, according to Wikipedia, is that final comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more terms. I like baseball, basketball, and hockey. Not baseball, basketball and hockey.)
“Twice in one month in my business writing classes women in two separate classes told me they hate when men refer to Oxford commas on dating sites,” Jovin said. “Apparently they say things like ‘adamant user of the Oxford comma’ on their profile.” She realized all the fuss was connected to an article that appeared in GQ magazine titled “Why Everyone on Tinder Is an ‘Oxford Comma Enthusiast.’” Apparently it’s a thing.
“It [the Oxford comma] has a name so you can refer to it easily. It’s like saying ‘Suzie’ instead of ‘that woman over there,’” Jovin explained.
Now I’ve spent too much time dilly-dallying over the serial comma. Come to Islanders Write, stop by the Grammar Table, and ask Jovin how she feels about it.
Islanders Write takes place at Featherstone Center for the Arts on Sunday, August 11, at 7:30 pm, and 8 am-5:30 pm Monday, August 12. For a complete list of workshops and events,visit islanderswrite.com.