Rebel with a Clause

Rebel with a Clause coverRebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian
Ellen Jovin
Mariner Books (July 19, 2022), 396 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.29

I believe that I first encountered Ellen Jovin on LinkedIn where she posted a photo of her grammar table. Ellen is a language educator who took conversations about grammar to the city street. She set up a table in New York City with a sign offering to answer grammar questions. From there she took her table around the country. Her husband joined her, making video recordings of her conversations. She took those conversations and made them into a book.

Jovin is brave. Her first chapter discusses the Oxford comma. There is nothing more likely to tie the knickers of grammar nerds into a knot than the Oxford (or serial) comma. To my disappointment, Jovin is only lukewarm in her support of the Oxford comma. She writes that she once had a job with an organization that did not use the Oxford comma, and though she has since begun to use it she does not feel strongly that others use it. I’m very aware that neither the Associated Press Stylebook nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage use the Oxford comma, but I am a Chicago Manual of Style guy myself and they support it.

My favorite example in support of the Oxford comma is in a book dedication, probably apocryphal, in which it is omitted:

I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

I had originally inserted a snarky comment here, but I’ll let the example speak for itself. Discussions about both Ayn Rand and God can stir up potent emotions.

In another chapter Jovin discusses the appositive, where a noun or noun phrase further identifies the subject of the sentence:

WH Auden, my favorite poet, captured the spirit of his time.

The phrase “my favorite poet” is the appositive. Jovin then combines appositives with the Oxford comma, and things really get gnarly. I’m not going to try to explain that here; you’ll need to read the book.

Jovin devotes a chapter to singular “they,” something else that gets people’s knickers in a knot, not all of them grammar nerds. While sometimes it is better to recast the sentence, there are times when it makes sense to use it. Chicago in its latest edition, the seventeenth, began allowing this.

In a chapter on lie/lay confusion, Jovin goes to a great deal of trouble to set the visitors to her table straight. She always keeps a notepad at her table and she reproduces a diagram she would sometimes draw to clarify all the various forms. She seems to be something of a stickler on this point, though things get rather arcane, especially with tenses like the present perfect of lie (which is lain). I tend to agree with linguist John McWhorter who in a recent podcast suggested that in this case we should probably let sleeping dogs lay. I mean lie.

Jovin covers a variety of topics: the book has forty-nine chapters. She discusses affect/effect, adverbs, semicolons, commas, apostrophes, and many other topics about which the visitors to her table brought questions. What’s great about Ellen Jovin is that she is always congenial, she is never confrontational or dogmatic. If she brings her table to your town stop by and visit.

And whether she does or not, consider buying Rebel with a Clause. You’ll enjoy the conversations.



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