Image for Taking a Seat at Ellen Jovin’s Grammar Table
Ellen Jovin bills herself as the Roving Grammarian and sets up her Grammar Table to engage people on questions regarding grammar, punctuation and capitalization. It’s dangerous work since “good” grammar can be more provocative than inflation or immigration.

Dangerous Advice on Grammar, Punctuation and Capitalization

Politics can be divisive but no more so than punctuation. Arguments over inflation and immigration can pale compared to arguments over Oxford commas and split infinitives. Political arguments come and go. Arguments over grammar never end.

Ellen Jovin, author of Rebel with a Clause, bills herself as the Roving Grammarian and travels the country with what she calls a pop-up Grammar Table to answer questions about split infinitives, the proper use of semicolons and, of course, the Oxford comma. She is in a dangerous line of work.

Ellen Jovin’s books about grammar, including how to fix English in a business setting so it doesn’t read and sound like a foreign language.

Jovin recounts one encounter in Manhattan where she lives when two young boys approached her Grammar Table and improbably asked, “What’s a gerund?” Jovin explained a gerund is a verb turned into a noun by adding ing – like run and running. The boys disagreed over her simple explanation and wound up in a fistfight with each other. Over the definition of a gerund.

Jovin insists her goal is to help people make peace with punctuation, notwithstanding her laminated tableside sign that says: “Vent! Comma crisis? Semicolonphobia? Conjunctive adverb addiction! Ask a question! Any language!” Jovin earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard in German studies and a master’s degree from UCLA in comparative languages, so she really means any language!

However, many grammatical conundrums are uniquely English. A prime example is the Oxford comma, which is defined as the final comma in a list – “Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.” The Associated Press Stylebook has unceremoniously discarded the Oxford comma as an unnecessary relic and a waste of space. Traditionalists and students who got A’s in grade school grammar still use the Oxford comma. (I went modern and stopped using them, even though I got A’s in grammar.)

It’s English, so there must be an exception, which is sentences when the Oxford comma provides clarity of meaning clarity – “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” In this case, using the Oxford comma clarifies that Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty aren’t her parents, just in case you were confused.

Jovin may be one of only a handful of Americans who can truthfully say, “I really love grammar”. She even wears her adoration on her T-shirt when ministering to the masses on grammar: “The comma said, ‘Wait’; the question mark said, ‘What?’”

Her underlying message is that while people can’t tolerate political disagreement, they should tolerate grammatical laxity. If someone splits an infinitive, let it slide. If someone puts a preposition in the wrong place, forget about it. If someone misuses a semicolon, who cares. “I think we should tolerate each other’s usages,” Jovin says. “I hate grammar snobbery.”

Of course, she knows tolerating grammatical lapses runs against the grain of decades of grade school instruction. Wrists have been slapped, students sent to the principal’s office and red-ink Fs applied to test papers when grammatical gaffes occurred. These are hard-to-forget lessons, even decades later. You don’t really have to understand grammar to know beyond a shadow of doubt that disobeying the rules you don’t understand is still a cardinal sin.

Jovin is a glutin for punishment by also offering advice on word usage and pronunciation. One of her most frequent Grammar Table frustrations (and mine, too) is explaining the different uses of “less” and “fewer.” ‘Fewer than’ is used in reference to things you can count; ‘less than’ is used when referring to non-numerated things. (Fewer than 10 people showed up for my lecture. The people who did show up were less than attentive.)

I think we should tolerate each other’s usages. I hate grammar snobbery.

She tells the story of a young man who wouldn’t believe her pronunciation of façade. He insisted it was pronounced ‘fa-kade’. Jovin gingerly noted the word has a French origin and in French a “ç” is pronounced like an “s” in English. The young man stormed off, undeterred in his verbal viewpoint. Jovin just shrugged. You can imagine trying to explain how to correctly pronounce Worcestershire sauce.

Jovin’s call to duty is more challenging because English is a moving target and the use of language, especially on social media, is more or less anything goes. American poet ee cummings, who spurned punctuation and capitalization norms as a form of poetic expression, would have been elated if he hadn’t died in 1962 before the internet showed up and evolved into a lowercase noun.

People have argued and fought over grammar and proper words for centuries. The version of English we speak today has evolved a great deal from the times of Shakespeare, Dickens and Churchill and continues to evolve. The Oxford English Dictionary, which recognizes more than 600,000 proper words, added 700+ new ones in its 2022 edition, including ankle-biter, which refers to a small dog, and sharenting, which is when parents share sensitive details about their children on social media. Who knew sharenting was a thing, let alone a word?

Jovin’s driving hope is that people can connect constructively by discussing grammar, punctuation and pronunciation. She claims to have found or launched social media communities that do just that. She and a woman who wandered over to her Grammar Table happily spent a half hour discussing the use of the word “reticent”.

In the work world, grammatical questions are more headache than happy hour. Here are a few suggestions to ease the anguish:

Have a stylesheet and stick with it. The AP publishes a stylebook to unify word, punctuation and capitalization usage. AP stories appear in all kinds of news outlets, so its stylebook has become like a bible. It’s not mandatory to follow, but it helps when you do. It’s written, easy to access and logical, even when it causes people to change old habits such as tapping in two spaces after a period before starting a new sentence. There is even an AP Style-Checking Tool to make it easy to find and correct those two spaces between sentences.

Agree on proper names and capitalization. Standardized capitalization is essential for uniformity in longer documents authored by more than one person. One of the most common capitalization errors is “Oregon Legislature”. The proper name for the state’s legislature is the Oregon Legislative Assembly, which is rarely used. Referring to the Oregon legislature is shorter, simpler and has only one capitalized letter. In our work, we capitalize Congress, but not congressional committees. Congress is a shortened version of a proper name and congressional committees refers to House and Senate committees that each have proper names.

Avoid being a grammar nazi. People make grammatical mistakes. Unless absolutely necessary (like media training for a public speaker), avoid correcting people’s miscues and triggering a brittle ego. You can have a private opinion about a person’s linguistic skills, but it’s better to keep it private and avoid irritation or even alienation. Pick and choose moments to offer instruction on grammar, punctuation and capitalization and try to keep it light (like this blog attempts to do). When you do offer criticism, such a pointing out a misspelling on a menu or an egregious misuse of a word, be gentle and sympathetic. That’s especially important when correcting someone for whom English is a second and mysterious language. Don’t expect a pat on the pack for being nice, but hopefully you can avoid a fist in the mouth.