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From the Stacks: Witty new book answers common grammer questions

by Madeline Matson | March 12, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
"Rebel with a Clause" by Ellen Jovin.

You might have seen T-shirts that announce "Silently correcting your grammar." No matter your age or education, there are times when most of us feel uncertain about our use of spoken and written language.

For lucky readers, expert grammarian Ellen Jovin comes to the rescue with some needed grammar therapy in her helpful and witty new book, "Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian."

She lives in New York City and runs a communications company and has spent more than 30 years working with adults, mostly business sorts, to improve their communication skills. She's been enthralled with language since her youth and over the years, she has studied 25 languages. Her academic background includes an undergraduate degree in German and a graduate degree in comparative literatures.

Given her experience, she recognized that people don't often get to talk about their grammar questions. So in the fall of 2018, she decided to offer free grammar advice and set up a pop-up grammar table outside a busy subway stop.

She bought a basic folding table, posted a welcome sign and even a sign for "venting." It didn't take long for people to approach her with questions. From children to teens to adults of all ages, the questions and comments were wild and varied. She moved the Grammar Table to different locations in the city, and its success resulted in her decision to take the program outside of New York.

In the year following, Jovin and her husband, a partner in their communications business, visited 47 states and towns of all sizes. Covid prevented a 50-state total. An introductory map shows the states and towns visited during the trips.

Her 49 clever chapter titles indicate the range of interests she encountered at home and on the road. Just a sampling: Possessed by Apostrophes; Where's That Preposition AT?; It's time for Its; Semicolonphobia; Horizontal-Line Lessons -- Hyphens and Dashes, A-Z; Whom You Gonna Call?; Good Fun with Bad Words.

She describes the disagreements, even minor quarrels, people expressed about contractions, the proper use of further or farther, Oxford commas, out-of-control capitalizations and pet peeves about how "some people" talk (often their own family members).

One visitor told her she quit seeing her therapist who said "between you and I." Ouch!

To a visitor who questioned why he had to learn sentence diagramming, she offered a drawing that presents a great visual description of that technique.

And her drawings and simple charts throughout the book illustrate important concepts.

Even her many footnotes are amusing, informative and complement each chapter topic. A "Quizlet" (with answers) at the end of each chapter gives the reader a no-stress test experience.

Jovin is helpful but not judgmental with her advice. She understands the things some people learned in middle school no longer apply in today's world and that language is always evolving. As she so wisely noted, language is "a thing to celebrate."

Her husband photographed many of the grammar table visitors for a later documentary about their innovative national "tour."

After meeting so many people who wanted to know more about language, she concluded: "At a time of deep division within the United States, my experiences have reminded me that it is still possible for strangers who disagree to talk instead of fight -- and even if they do fight, to do so without hating. After all, how mad can one really get about a comma?" Her footnote says "pretty mad."

As a former editor, I enjoy reading usage guides, especially when they're fun like this one. Whether you're passionate about language, mildly interested or just curious, Jovin's fascinating book can help us all reconnect with some long-forgotten rules.

Madeline Matson is a reference and adult programming librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library.

Print Headline: From the Stacks: Witty new book answers common grammer questions


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