We can all learn to love apostrophes at Ellen Jovin’s Grammar Table

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Patrick Cox: It’s a warm, sunny late afternoon. Central Park is teeming with people, strolling, chatting, flirting, laughing. And in one particular spot, a couple of New Yorkers are talking about grammar.

Ellen Jovin: OK, let’s discuss the semicolon first.

Raquel: OK.

Ellen Jovin: Do you not use any?

Raquel: No, I just use them, like I’m not sure I’m doing this right, and I Google them, and I think I am. And I’ve heard that it’s softer than a period and harder than a — hello?

Ellen Jovin: Comma?

Patrick Cox: Even though it’s a light-hearted chat, you can sense the anxiety. That one woman — her name is Raquel — she just forgot the word, “comma.” Plain forgot it. Also what she said before, “I’m not sure I’m doing this right.” That’s grammar anxiety. We all have it. Well, everyone I know has it except for one person, the other person in this conversation: Ellen Jovin.

Ellen Jovin: You don’t often use the semicolon in the same place you’d use the comma. I mean in traditional writing. If you’re writing lyric poetry you can do whatever you feel like.

Raquel: Got it.

Patrick Cox: Semicolon done. They move onto something else Raquel is uncertain about, the ellipsis. Ellen is reassuring.

Ellen Jovin: The ellipsis is like crazy land. I don’t really use it that much. Do you use it a lot?

Raquel: I feel like I use it when I’m saying something that’s open-ended and it could go on till wherever. Or I’m saying it in the middle of a sentence where I’m concluding a thought after it.

Ellen Jovin: It sounds like you’re using it in an informal way. Is that true? Cos then it doesn’t matter. Who gives a shit?

Patrick Cox: Laughter is one of the best tonic for grammar anxiety, and there’s always plenty of it at Ellen’s table. Yes, table. Ellen is sitting behind one in a nice patch of shade along one of Central Park’s wide walkways.

Ellen Jovin: (Half way through a sentence) …You know, the research paper ellipsis. But I don’t use it to be nasty. Some people are like, I thought you meant it. Dot dot dot…

Patrick Cox: Ellen’s table has a bunch of books on it — dictionaries and other reference guides — and hand-made sign at the front. It says “Grammar Table,” and around those words are a bunch of suggestions for passers-by: “Ask a question!” “Vent.” “Semicolonphobia?” That’s all one word. And my favorite: “Apostrophes!” It’s followed, of course, by an exclamation point. Raquel seems delighted with Ellen’s soothing advice. She has one last question.

Raquel: Um. So just a general question is, what do you feel people have needed with regards to grammar?

Ellen Jovin: A sense of psychological well being. You’re funny. Thank you for stopping by. Stop by again.

From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode, if there’s a cure for our grammar anxiety, this table may be it.

Ellen Jovin: I’m Ellen Jovin. I have been a writer– or a teacher of writing– for pretty much my entire professional life. So I teach things like email etiquette, business writing, grammar, editing, you know like the nerdy word stuff.

Patrick Cox: I wanted to know how Ellen became the fearless, funny grammarian that she is today. So, not to be overly Freudian here, we had to start at the beginning.

Ellen Jovin: When I think of my first early memories, the chunk of them that I remember from age maybe three to four — like the really scanty ones — there’s a lot of language in there. For example, I remember learning to spell “cat” and “dog,” even though I don’t think I really knew how to write yet. And I remember being in the back seat of the car saying C-A-T, D-O-G, C-A-T, D-O-G, because I was interested. So I would have been very young then. And then I remember learning to write the alphabet, and I wrote it all over the page instead of in order, like you would normally when you write. I just remember it feeling like art and fun. I’m still very messy in my note taking. It goes all over the page in different directions. I feel like there’s a continuum from early childhood fascination with language. I mean, I don’t remember that much else. Those are very central in my five early memories.

A lot of times people complain about, “Oh, you shouldn’t teach kids grammar because they’ll lose their joy of language.” I feel like some of these discussions are so reductive. My exposure to language at school was so broad. We did so much reading. We memorized poems. I mean, I wrote poems and I would read them aloud in class. I hope that wasn’t too annoying to my classmates, but I totally loved it! But then I also had tons of drilling. We wrote spelling lists every single day as far as I can remember throughout school. I loved repetition. And there was a way, I think, that helped me learn to caress words. That’s how I think of it as a kind of word caress, like it was a little person that I was connected to. And so it’s very real and very full for me.

Eighth grade was a pivotal experience for me because we did sentence-diagramming then. I loved it so much. And it helped me. For people who don’t know the basics, you have a horizontal line. Let’s say you have a simple sentence like “I petted the dog.” So, the subject goes on the left of this horizontal line. Then you draw a vertical line dramatically through that horizontal line. Then “petted,” the verb, goes right after that to the right of the subject. Then you draw a shorter line that only goes to that base horizontal line. And then the dog is the object. So the dog goes next on the right of that line and then you put the on a diagonal line below it.

Patrick Cox: Whoa! Even with Ellen’s example — a really simple sentence — I’m lost. But I’m so glad her brain works that way, or has been trained to. She’s doing the heavy lifting for the rest of us.

Ellen Jovin: There is a link for me between the art of the sentence and the grammar of the sentence. Like, why does this sentence have this kind of effect? Was it too long? Did it have too many clauses? There’s a lot of information for me that comes through the grammar into the style.

Patrick Cox: I’m guessing that maybe the difference between you and some other people who are thrown by that technique is that you would take that on board as a sort of a building block, a learning tool to writing well. Whereas other people would just look at this thing in front of them and think, “This is making me more kind of paralyzed by it.”

Ellen Jovin: That actually makes me sad that people have that kind of experience because language is just so magical. I mean, the fact that it exists that we’re sitting here having this conversation right now. How cool is that?

Patrick Cox: It’s brilliant.

Ellen Jovin: We’re making these weird sounds and we both understand them. And I think sometimes kids aren’t lucky. They don’t get the teachers that are best for them and the teaching approaches that are best for them. And some of us are just different. We love different things, we’re inspired by different things.

Patrick Cox: I think I’m now sort of understanding how your mind works, the types of education that you responded to. Because I didn’t go through any of this stuff at all. I think I was taught grammar in an incredibly poor way. I was barely taught any at all. And I think I just picked it up along the way. So I think I’m very much intuitive. I read a lot, I read a huge amount of fiction, and so I copied that and intuited certain things. And I do things like, you know, when there’s a pause, they put a comma, right, and things like that. But I haven’t figured out why and I think maybe quite a few people are like that.

Ellen Jovin: Well, your experience seems to me to be far more common, although I have a question for you. Are you sure you remember how much grammar you got? Would you really know for sure? Because a lot of people don’t remember what they did in school.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I didn’t get any grammar. I have very, very poor schooling on that side of things.

Ellen Jovin: Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, I’ve emailed you, and it seems to be going quite well in the email.

Patrick Cox: But here’s the other thing. Not to make this about me, but I did go into radio. And and and I went into radio before the days of the Internet, when there were transcriptions and when things would kind of follow you online and all of this. I went into a medium where you just did something on the radio and it never came back to bite you. You could write down a script whichever way you want. In fact, it was encouraged for you to write, not according to any standardized grammar, but a way that would have you read it most naturally. So we would do all kinds of ellipsis. We used ellipsis to a ridiculous degree, horribly. I had to get rid of my ellipsis addiction.

Ellen Jovin: I should mention right now that I’m actually wearing an ellipsis T-shirt. The T-shirt has one big ellipsis on it and that is it. So this feels I feel I dressed in a thematically appropriate way for our conversation.

Patrick Cox: You’re wearing an ellipsis T-shirt, and I’m wearing a T-shirt with the name of the capital of Moldova: Chișinău, with a couple of diacritical marks on it.

Ellen Jovin: I’m actually pretty excited about the diacritical marks.

Patrick Cox: We all have just such diacritical envy in the English speaking world, right?

Patrick Cox: We’ve been having this conversation in Ellen’s home office on the upper west side of Manhattan. Late in the afternoon, when people are getting off work, Ellen says it’s time to take the grammar table out. On the way to Central Park, Ellen shows one of her old spots, right on Broadway outside a subway station.

Ellen Jovin: This is where I first set up, like right there. But as you can see it’s kind of hard now because often that guy’s there.

Sound of someone playing the saxophone.

Ellen Jovin :Like I get tired of yelling..

Patrick Cox: So we walk on. But even in Central Park, it’s hard to find a quiet spot. There are buskers.

Sound of someone playing the accordion.

Patrick Cox: There are choppers.

Sound of helicopters above.

Ellen Jovin: There’s been so many helicopters over the park during the pandemic.

Patrick Cox: There are tourists posing for group shots.

Sound of a group of chatty, excited tourists.

Patrick Cox: But eventually we find a spot that’s not loud, with decent foot traffic. After the break, Ellen or as she calls herself, some random lady on the street, takes questions at her table.

Patrick Cox: Jumping in here to tell you about another podcast you might check out: It’s called All Ears English. This is a great podcast for anyone looking for a new and fun way to learn American English. Hosts Lindsay McMahon and Michelle Kaplan will help you navigate vocab and idioms and– very important– American English small talk. All Ears English is an English as a Second Language podcast for intermediate to advanced English learners around the world. But frankly, I — a native English speaker — I have started listening and I’m learning a ton too. Join the community to learn to speak American English as if you were born in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty! As Lindsay and Michelle say, it’s about Connection not Perfection. Subscribe to All Ears English wherever you’re listening right now.

Ellen: Hi! Welcome to the Grammar Table.

Prasad: I’m really interested in how language changes. My question is, I felt like there was no word called “addicting” before. “It was addictive,” or “It wasn’t addictive.” But recently I started hearing people say, “It’s so addicting.”

Ellen: So do you use “addicting” yourself?

Prasad: No I don’t. Not at all. I refuse to.

Ellen: I mean, it does make sense logically. “Addicting,” “addictive.”

Prasad: Does it?

Ellen: Why not? “It’s addicting.” “It’s tempting.” Isn’t that kind of similar?

Prasad: You wouldn’t say it’s “temptive.”

Ellen: I don’t look for logic and consistency and because of that my life is much simpler, because language is messy.

Prasad: The English language is. The French language is contained.

Ellen: “Contained!” It is supervised, more. I’ve actually written to the French authorities on a French grammar question and gotten a specific answer on what’s right and wrong. And look what you’re stuck with: some random lady on the street.

Patrick Cox: What was it that was missing in your life that made you pick up a table and take it outside, and a chair, and sit down and answer people’s queries?

Ellen Jovin: I wish I had a better and more specific answer to that. I had already been spending all this time for years involved in language learning, teaching grammar. And then when social media and the Internet became more part — well, that sounds very old! That sounds really old school, “When the Internet happened…”! But really, I think it was when social media happened that my language life kind of changed and became more — the tentacles reached farther into the world. I was able to talk to people all over the world about different languages, languages they spoke. I wanted to nerd out about grammar, have more exposure to different Englishes, different varieties of English. It was very joyous. I was in a giant Facebook group for polyglots and linguaphiles. And we could talk. We could talk about the most obscure things. I’d never been able to do that.

Online life has been great to me, but it’s also been hard for me, as it has been for many other people. You can get weird in the head. I think we are meant to talk to each other and look at each other’s faces and interact and punch each other, you know, playfully in the shoulder. That’s fun for me. Oh, and I also love small talk.

Patrick Cox: Well it sounds that you get plenty of all of that.

Ellen Jovin: Small talk is huge talk. I like writing online because I feel like I can. I am a writer and I feel very comfortable expressing myself in writing. But it’s not the same. And it’s also good for you physically. We need more exercise. So now I get to carry a table all over the place. It’s really good for the biceps. It is kind of cool to get to carry stuff around. It’s good for you.

Patrick Cox: I mean, I don’t know, most people I think walk the dog or something, go to the gym. They don’t carry a table and a chair and a sign that says, “Grammar Table.”

Ellen Jovin: Don’t forget the cart because I have to have something to carry the books. When I first start going out, they were lighter because I don’t have that many, but I kept thinking more things that I really needed to make the table complete. So I have a whole rolling cart actually that comes too. So there’s a whole thing.

Patrick Cox: Ellen and her husband Brandt Johnson have taken all that gear around the country.

Ellen Jovin: Do you have any grammar questions?

Man in Middlebury, VT: You know the reason I came to Middlebury was because of languages.

Patrick Cox: That’s Vermont. This is California, Venice Beach.

Woman in Venice, CA: OK, say you’re writing a paper, and you’re quoting a quote from a book, but it’s a dialog quote, how do you do quotations?

Ellen Jovin: So it kind of depends on how you do it. Are you talking about a novel?

Patrick Cox: The plan was to stage Grammar Table sessions in all 50 states. Ellen and Brandt and the table made it to all but three states. Weirdly, Connecticut, right next door, was one of them. But then Covid hit.

Ellen Jovin: We were in the South at the end and I think we got home in mid-January and then pretty soon after that, all hell broke loose.

Patrick Cox: Right. And you never made it to Connecticut.

Ellen Jovin: We didn’t make it to Hawaii, Alaska or Connecticut. Connecticut was right there. It just seemed like we could go any time.

Patrick Cox: OK. But you’re going to get to Hawaii and Alaska before you go to Connecticut, right?

Patrick Cox: During the pandemic, Ellen and Brandt pivoted. Ellen wrote a book about the Grammar Table: Rebel with a Clause, great title. And Brandt logged hundreds of hours of Grammar Table encounters for a film he’s working on. Like this moment, from New Orleans.

Ellen Jovin: Hi, welcome to the Grammar Table!

Woman in New Orleans: So I have a question. This is something I vaguely remember learning in school. But I don’t know if I learned it right. So if you have a word that ends in an S and you need to do..

Ellen Jovin: A possessive? Are you talking about a name?

Woman in New Orleans: Yeah. You put the apostrophe in. Charles’

Ellen Jovin: You have two choices…

Patrick Cox: Ah, apostrophes. I thought we might get through this episode without mentioning those dispute-starters.

Patrick Cox: I don’t mean to diminish arguments that people have over grammar because they mean an awful lot to people. And I’ve certainly had my disagreements with people over points of grammar, ill-informed on all sides. But I wonder after you’ve sort of learned about the grammar, whether people kind of talking about apostrophes just really matters all that much?

Ellen Jovin: Does it seem sort of banal or tiresome?

Patrick Cox: Here’s an example that is actually tied to apostrophes. I learned Danish. I speak pretty good Danish. I speak it better than any other language apart from English.

Ellen Jovin: Why did you learn Danish?

Patrick Cox: My university, the University of East Anglia had all these Scandinavian languages, all Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. So I then started interviewing — I interviewed everybody who had done the years abroad in Norway, Sweden and Denmark to try and figure out which would be the best. It was no contest. I needed to go to Denmark. So I went to Denmark and had such a good time. I deferred, spent a second year over there and nearly didn’t go back to school.

Ellen Jovin: You had a grammar party in Denmark. And then you decided to do Danish?

Patrick Cox: Oh, boy. I had a two-year grammar party in Copenhagen, yeah. The thing with Danish and the apostrophe is that the Danes do not have apostrophes.

Ellen Jovin: Mm-hmm.

Patrick Cox: Quick clarification here, so you don’t have to write in if you know what I’ve said is garbage. Apostrophes are used in Danish in kind of different ways from in English, and never in the kind of example that I’m about to give Ellen. Like you wanted to know that.

Patrick Cox:I was just blown away. I’m like, Oh, I don’t have to learn this stuff.

Ellen Jovin: But they have genitive case endings, right?

Patrick Cox: What’s a genitive case ending?

Ellen Jovin: So possessives, don’t they add something at the end to make a to show a possessive?

Patrick Cox: Peders mor. Peter’s mother.

Ellen Jovin: What happens with the Peter?

Patrick Cox: It’s just an S at the end. No apostrophe. This was just like, wow, this is great. This is so simple.

Ellen Jovin: The apostrophe thing and the hyphen thing in English really irritate people. They’re not happy about those things. But I don’t know. I do understand why they don’t like it. I like it so much. I can’t relate to the emotion. I understand that it’s annoying to people. I actually taught a writing class this week where the company, where there weren’t that many hyphens where I would expect them in the written material I looked at. And so I went over some hyphen stuff. People really did not like it. They did not want to hyphenate, you know, at least some of them really had hyphen antipathy.

Patrick Cox: Hyphen antipathy. Apostrophe Atrocity. Oxford comma absolutism. Ellen’s come across it all. Is this, I wonder, why people approach Ellen at the table? To tell her what they think is proper usage and what isn’t? Or do they secretly want to be commanded to change their grammar habits, like being told by a dentist to floss more? There are possibilities too: They may just need someone to listen to them, to hear out their frustrations with language. Or, they may be seeking a referee.

Ellen Jovin: Those are some of my favorite ones. When people come up really determined to win an argument, I just think it’s funny. And none of it’s malicious. No one’s being malicious with anyone. At least not that I can recall. I mean, I guess it happens. But I haven’t seen it at the table. And the joy or the humorous despair, depending on the outcome of what my answer is, I just find it really funny.

Patrick Cox: You’ve made it clear that that the table itself is a sort of open thing and it’s something that should be — everybody’s open. Nobody’s judging everybody. Well, maybe they are, but you’re not. So it’s not like a trip to the dentist.

Ellen Jovin: No, I hope not. But you know what? The reality is, the people who never come up to me, I never I clearly never talk to. So the people who come up to me, that’s a self-selecting group. They’re willing to talk to me. I wish I did have more access to the interior monologue of people who look at me and swiftly walk by and try not to make eye contact.

Patrick Cox: What about then — there’s some therapy there, isn’t there?

Ellen Jovin: I don’t want to be sued for giving unlicensed therapy. But I think because words are connected to our humanity, there is a component of comfort, I hope. The way I feel about this is genuinely positive. So I guess so in that sense, yes.

Patrick Cox: Yeah. It definitely seems that some people leave the table, even if they don’t get the answers that they were seeking, that they leave the table buoyed — spiritually buoyed.

Ellen Jovin: It definitely leaves me feeling that way just from a purely selfish point of view. This is great therapy for me. The thing is about the Grammar Table. It’s so unexpected. It’s not something that people expect to see. And I think there’s I mean, at least in that type of unexpected thing, there’s humor. So they’re not coming up to me with, you know, very official serious demeanor. Usually they’re usually already kind of laughing. And that sets the tone for the whole thing. I actually still feel silly when I set it up because there’s a lot of shenanigans, you have to unfold it. People think people who do things on the street are weird a lot of the time. So they think I’m a weirdo. I want something: maybe I’m trying to sell them a lottery ticket to a dictionary extravaganza. I don’t know what they think I’m doing.

Patrick Cox: You’re some kind of linguistic shaman or something. There’s a religion aspect to it.

Ellen Jovin: Well, I mean, I am often right where the Jehovah’s Witnesses would normally sit.

Patrick Cox: Do they ever come up to you if they’re sort of bored at their tables?

Ellen Jovin: I was approached once when I was in their spot because they wanted to know when I was going to leave.

Patrick Cox: They didn’t want any tips, grammar tips?

Ellen Jovin: Well, it was cloaked as a grammar tip. The person came up to me and asked me about the possessive of Jesus and Moses. So we discussed that. But his behavior was not quite — it was a little bit strange. So I realized that he was with this large group of people with Jehovah’s Witness literature. So I said, “Do you really care about this or do you just want my spot?” And he confessed that he was not fully there for the apostrophes.

Patrick Cox: Not fully there for the apostrophes.

Isn’t that a good alternative title for Ellen book? Nah, her title’s better. I’ll say it again: Rebel With a Clause. It’s out this summer. Fun fact: Ellen Jovin has studied 25 languages besides English, just because! Huge thanks to her and to her husband Brandt Johnson for their time.

Thanks also to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America. And to Tina Tobey, our sound designer. And Allison Shao, who manages our social media and newsletter. Quick note on those. The newsletter comes out every couple of weeks. We keep it short and newsy and a bit jokey. As for social media we’re on Facebook, Insta and mainly on Twitter.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who’re all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you won’t come across in many other places. Here’s one of the other Hub and Spoke offerings: The Lonely Palette, the podcast that returns art history to the masses, one object at a time. Some episodes are about artworks you’ve heard of. Others are less well known. But I can assure you, host Tamar Avishai will have you scrambling to check them all out. That’s what I did with the latest episode which features Sarah Sze’s installation, Fallen Sky, which is really something else.

Thanks for listening. We’re taking a brief summer break, northern hemisphere summer. We’ll be back in September, with a bunch of new Subtitle episodes. See you then.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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