Ellen Jovin is a cofounder of Syntaxis, a communication skills training firm based in New York City. The author of several books for business professionals, she has a BA in German studies from Harvard and an MA in comparative literature from UCLA. Language lovers everywhere, however, are more likely these days to know her as the itinerant grammarian behind the Grammar Table, an informal pop-up advice stand that she launched in 2018 in Manhattan and has since taken to nearly every state in the US.
A documentary film of the Grammar Table’s adventures, directed by Brandt Johnson, Ellen’s husband and longtime business partner (he cofounded Syntaxis with her), is currently in postproduction.
The book version—Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian, published in July 2022 by Mariner Books (an imprint of HarperCollins)—is the subject of this exclusive Shop Talk interview.
CMOS: First, thank you so much for taking time out for our questions. Our editors have enjoyed following you on Twitter (and learning from your many polls), but nothing compares to reading your thoughts in book form.
EJ: That is a serious compliment, because I think very highly of the CMOS team. I have taken The Chicago Manual of Style all over the country with me and kept it on the Grammar Table—even though it is really heavy.
CMOS: Thank you. We appreciate your dedication (and your strength!). And we admire your book, which covers some of the same subjects as ours but from a much different perspective. Unlike most grammar books, yours documents real-life interactions—between you and the grammatically curious people who approached you at your table. In speech, however, Oxford commas aren’t a thing, apostrophes are mostly silent (you’re and your and they’re and their or there, among many other such variations, are indistinguishable), and it can be hard to tell a difference between than and then or affect and effect. Many things that go unnoticed in speech come up only in writing. Yet the concepts covered in your book seem to benefit from having started out as speech. Was this part of your plan?
EJ: I was planless. I just go with the language flow. It makes sense, though, that people are regularly confused in writing about situations where the spoken language fails to give them clear guidance. People write “would of” because that’s what “would’ve” sounds like. It’s less likely that they will make mistakes like this one if they (a) read a lot of excellent writing and (b) understand parts of speech, but there are no prerequisites at the Grammar Table. I will start at the definition of a noun if that’s where a visitor wants me to start.
CMOS: Many of the people in your book have stories of being corrected by a parent or grandparent, or of living with a spouse or sibling or someone else in their lives who constantly corrects them. (We get to witness some of this firsthand.) Yet, as you remind us more than once, it’s not polite to correct someone else’s grammar—especially if you’re not related to them. Why do you think some people do it anyway, whether in real life or on social media?
EJ: Some people have poor social skills. Some people feel superior. Some do not feel superior but are aspiring to enjoy such a feeling. Some are genuinely trying to help. It’s not always malicious, even if it feels that way.
We all live in our particular language communities, and many people have limited experience with language variety. They don’t realize how many different and fully legitimate ways there are of doing things in English. They genuinely believe that the person they are correcting is wrong. We shouldn’t underestimate the human yearning for consistency. A deviation from familiar practices—in all areas of life!—can be painful to people, and not just to mean people. It’s kind of human to like things the way you like them.
By the way, I don’t object to correcting people who are relying on you as a mentor or manager. In the workplace, people need feedback to help them grow professionally and also personally. Better communication skills help people advance and succeed. Those skills include knowing how to write and edit for a professional audience.
Lastly, correcting people who aren’t your relatives or direct reports isn’t always an etiquette violation. It can be funny, and fun—if all parties involved are in on the teasing and there is mutual respect and understanding. Have you ever tried arguing with someone you love about the correct pronunciation of a word? Pronunciation fights can be funny, sexy, romantic bonding experiences. I’m surprised more hasn’t been written about grammar arguments as mating rituals.
CMOS: Maybe a book on that subject could inspire people to embrace their mistakes and become better writers. At one point you say that “it’s not so much the writing part that people are hung up on but rather, the concern that they’re going to make an error” (p. 241), something you observed teaching business writing to adults. What about texting and social media, which are a lot like written conversation and subject to a whole different set of expectations? Do you think people who’ve grown up with these things are more confident as writers, or do the rules still end up somehow getting in the way?
EJ: Gosh, you really did read my book. I am honored. I wish more people would really read things—for example, the emails in which I ask two very clear questions and the person I wrote to answers only one of them.
I don’t know how texting and social media have affected writing confidence, but audience awareness is critical to excellent writing. The amount of feedback young people get on their social media posts can be both educational and crushing. Instead of an occasional one-person audience for each school essay—the teacher—they might have feedback every day from many people on their texts, posts, and tweets. An astute student can learn a lot from that. Others may just feel bad because they are getting publicly hassled for, say, writing “your” for “you’re.” I can imagine that someone who feels sensitive or insecure might be intimidated by that, and it might harm their confidence in their writing voice. So I don’t really know. I’m glad I grew up before Instagram.
CMOS: People save their strongest feelings for the small stuff—Oxford commas, one space versus two after a period, sentences that end in a preposition, less versus fewer. That will probably always be true. But then when it comes to lie/lay, gerunds versus participles, dashes relative to hyphens, and anything with more complexity to it (you devote whole chapters to these concepts and many more in your book), a genuine curiosity and desire to learn seems to take over no matter who[m] you’re talking to. (Your who/whom chapter ends with an instructive joke from Brandt, who plays a kind of court jester throughout.) Why do you think that is?
EJ: Why does Brandt play a court jester? Well, he has a playful way about him that I find alluring— Oh. You mean why does a genuine curiosity and desire to learn take over? People who come up to the Grammar Table have chosen to be there. I don’t tackle them as they’re walking by and drag them over to the table and make them conjugate irregular verbs. They are self-selectingly more curious than average about these things. I also find that many people are curious. I have never understood why grammar has such a bad reputation. To me, people have always seemed interested in it. Except maybe occasionally when it came up in the freshman comp classes I taught in the 1990s, but it is hard to compete with hormones and active social lives. Age eighteen was, for me, a time of peak bad attention span.
CMOS: Throughout your book you exhibit a healthy respect for grammatical flexibility and for the fact that language is constantly on the move (a sensible philosophy for a traveling grammarian). But you do take a stand for your own grammatical principles (and those of your visitors) more than once—for example, in the matter of “between you and I,” which many (especially) younger people assume is correct. One of your visitors even says he knows it should be “me” but uses “I” to avoid sounding “stupid”; you convince him to stand up for himself and for the pronoun “me” (pp. 281–82). Do you ever worry that those of us who insist on this rule as inviolable are being too prescriptive? Or is there another lesson here?
EJ: I do think about this at times. I haven’t changed my mind about it yet, though. I believe the most committed descriptivists sometimes underestimate the value of consistency to both reader and writer. They underestimate the desire by a large portion of the population to have someone tell them what to do with the nitpicky details so they can focus on things of greater importance to them. Excessive wishy-washiness in guidance on editorial details gets annoying to people who have jobs to do.
I also believe that there is value in the underlying language awareness that leads us to “between you and me” rather than “between you and I.” That awareness is useful to me when I study a language that is not English: I am better equipped to understand what is going on. Indifference to grammatical structures in English can make it harder to edit one’s writing confidently. It can also make it harder to acquire new languages and avoid the cultural insularity of monolingualism in a world of almost 200 countries and thousands of languages. If someone wants to argue about why it should be “The Grammar Table fell on Jack and I,” I am open to the linguistic argument. My point is that having the tools to make the argument, regardless of whether I personally agree with the conclusion, is useful.
Education ideally helps students develop some feeling of intimacy with linguistic structures. That is not the same thing as rigid prescriptivism or adherence to long-rejected grammar superstitions. There are costs to tossing aside grammar instruction—good grammar instruction, I mean—that we shouldn’t underestimate.
These kinds of choices—is it “me,” “myself,” or “I”?—are also a dance we do with convention. People benefit from being trained to make informed choices about writing and editing conventions. When I look at a problematic sentence, I am able to diagnose its ailments and treat them. My sense is that many people grow frustrated when they don’t have the tools to do this. Good instincts are great, but they need supplementation in almost all cases.
CMOS: There’s no doubt you’d make an excellent copyeditor; you demonstrate on every page an enthusiasm for and mastery of the kinds of picky details that editors are paid to look for. Would you enjoy that kind of work, or has taking your ideas outdoors and exposing them to the light of day (and the collective wisdom of your fellow citizens) ruined for you the idea of fixing other people’s grammar and punctuation all alone, just you and the screen?
EJ: Thank you! I used to love editing, and I did work a little as a copyeditor. For example, in the mid-1990s I spent eight weeks as a copyeditor at OC Weekly, a now-defunct paper in Orange County, California, that was owned by Village Voice Media. I did other freelance editing as well around that time. But today I don’t much enjoy worrying about en dashes, number format, ellipsis-dot spacing, and so on, plus I think I was better at it in some ways when I was younger. Back then I felt as though I could see a typo across a crowded room, and now I need reading glasses. I have a lot of reading glasses. By the way, I think many people underestimate how important an up-to-date eyeglasses prescription is for good copyediting. These days I enjoy talking at length a lot more than I enjoy copyediting at length. But if you give me a seductive sentence with an unusual problem, I’m all over it.
CMOS: And not only with reading glasses at the ready but also with an array of grammar and usage guides. We loved seeing some of our favorite resources displayed on the Grammar Table. Do you have any suggestions for what you’d like to see in a future edition of CMOS?
EJ: I am happy with CMOS. At that weight, it wouldn’t be running around the country with me otherwise. I don’t have anything in mind right now for future CMOS features, though while we are here, I would like to compliment you on that hyphenation table. I like that hyphenation table a lot. It strikes me as the careful product of a detailed and organized mind—or of multiple detailed and organized minds? Anyway, that’s the kind of thing I keep coming back for, and also for which I keep coming back.
CMOS: Thank you for saying so, and for sharing your thoughts with us today. We look forward to encountering you again soon—in your upcoming documentary and wherever else your ideas may take you.
EJ: Thank you so much. In that case, may I invite myself over to see the University of Chicago Press offices when I am next in town? I like seeing the offices of people who work on words.
CMOS: Yes, you may! We’d love to see you here.
Image credits: Brandt Johnson
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