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Ellen Jovin takes on the nation's grammatical quandaries in 'Rebel With A Clause'


Grammar is just a necessary chore for a lot of us, like going to the dentist or washing your socks. You do it, but not with joy - unless you're Ellen Jovin. Four years ago, she set up a table to invite grammar questions outside of her Manhattan apartment. She got her first question in 30 seconds and decided to take her show on the road.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What's the name for the non-Oxford comma?

ELLEN JOVIN: It's just comma. Just - yeah, like another. That's the - I think it's the reason. My theory is that that's why people bring that one up a lot because it has its own name.

SIMON: Ellen Jovin's now been to 47 states with her grammar table, and she's distilled a lot of anxieties and answers about conjugations, punctuations and pronunciations into her new book, "Rebel With A Clause: Tales And Tips From A Roving Grammarian." Ellen Jovin joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOVIN: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What made you decide to take your show on the road?

JOVIN: I've always been a grammar lover and I could even say a professional grammar nerd because I've taught writing and grammar for many years to adults. I've studied more than 25 languages. But the internet was very enticing because all these language groups, social media, you could chat with people that you would never, ever have encountered before. And I was online too much. So I said, hey, I don't want to talk online anymore. I want to go out there in the world and talk to human beings face-to-face.

SIMON: Let me get to some of the substance of your book. You called the Oxford comma a national obsession. We'll explain - Oxford comma, that's the final comma in a list. Some people don't think it's necessary. Some of us believe in it ardently. You can make some pretty hilarious mistakes without it, can't you?

JOVIN: (Laughter) Well, it can be a little confusing, but I think a lot of the arguments - you see these memes with orange juice on toast or JFK as a stripper. If you don't know what I'm talking about, that is easily Googleable online. JFK...

SIMON: Well, I mean, I made a note, an actual headline - Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.

JOVIN: Yeah.

SIMON: As opposed to cooking, comma, her family, comma, and her dog.

JOVIN: Yes, I've seen that. You can also create confusion by being too heavy with the Oxford comma occasionally.

SIMON: You believe in the Oxford comma, don't you?

JOVIN: I wouldn't say that because I don't actually care whether people use it. I currently use it, but I have gone through life stages without it, and I've been perfectly happy either way.

SIMON: Let me ask you about text messages. Should they be properly punctuated?

JOVIN: I don't properly punctuate them, so I'm not in a position to tell other people to. If I were sending them for work things, but I'm not typically doing that. And actually, it's all context specific. You can be light. You can be casual if it's appropriate. In other cases, you need to be more formal.

SIMON: Now, one of our talented young producers has told me that a period at the end of a single sentence text message is not well received.

JOVIN: Yeah, and is - that's something that you would like to include?

SIMON: Well, I mean, I don't do it with him. Let me put it that way.

JOVIN: (Laughter) Now, see, I think it's interesting and appropriate that you make adjustments for your audience when it doesn't cost you anything. I actually think it's a little bit like a ping-pong match where you're - you know, you have things coming at you really quickly from people who are different from one another. And I - that's one of the things I love about email, too. It's like an adventure in how you respond based on demographics, psychology, all kinds of mushy factors that wouldn't probably have been taught quite as much in writing classes.

SIMON: You had a particularly hilarious encounter with a man who, I think it's safe to say, didn't quite have the pronunciation of facade that we'd like to encourage.

JOVIN: This conversation took place in Richmond, Va., and he was objecting to his friend's pronunciation of two things. One was facade, which he thought should be facade, but his friend thought it should be fa-cade (ph). At the same time - and it wasn't really clear to me why this bothered him quite as much - he was upset about his friend's pronunciation of Keanu Reeves's name. So his friend was calling him...

SIMON: Canoe.

JOVIN: ...Canoe Reeves, yeah. And those were very distressing to him.

SIMON: Yeah. How did you resolve that one?

JOVIN: I told him he was right, and I told him about the French origins of the word and that in French especially, and often in English, it's written with a little hook under the C, and that indicates in French pronunciation that you say it like an S. And he was extremely excited to go back and tell his friend about it.

SIMON: Let me pose a question to you that you raise in this book. If you hear somebody make a grammatical error, should you correct them?

JOVIN: Absolutely not. If someone has just said right before the sentence where they make an error, Ellen, will you correct me if I make a grammatical error, then that is an exception. But I also want to note that the correctors in my experience are often wrong. So...

SIMON: Yeah, yeah.

JOVIN: ...Correctors, beware - some of the things that a lot of us were taught when we were young, you wouldn't even find them in English books now. And those include things like splitting infinitives and ending with prepositions. So you should make sure that your authority has survived the generations.

SIMON: Ellen Jovin - her book, "Rebel With A Clause: Tales And Tips From A Roving Grammarian" - thanks so much for being with us.

JOVIN: Thank you for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.