Rebel with a Clause by Ellen Jovin book review


I invited Rona Jackson, my former roommate, and my boss to the party. How many people did I invite? Two or three?

The answer depends on what role the second comma is playing. Is it an Oxford comma? Or is it there to enclose a restrictive appositive (in other words, to tell us that Rona used to be my roommate)? In “Rebel With a ClauseEllen Jovin offers this example to show how, even when grammar rules are applied rigorously, we can still run into trouble. Besides, even the rules are merely conventions. “There’s no official, is the great thing about English,” she writes, in a sentence that wryly practices what it preaches. “It’s like the Wild Wild West.”

But, of course, clarity and tone matter. For two decades, Jovin has run a communication skills company aimed at business professionals, training them to express themselves more effectively. Then, in 2018, she decided to bring her expertise to the public at large. Packing her style guides and a folding table, she hit the road, parking herself on sidewalks across the country — 47 towns in 47 states before covid intervened — and offering grammatical instruction to passersby. Part-manual, part-travelogue, “Rebel with a Clause” is the story of the Grammar Table, a kind of linguist’s version of Lucy’s Psychiatric Help stall in “Peanuts.”

Who cares about hyphens, commas and capital letters? You should.

As far as advice goes, Jovin situates herself at the less prescriptive end of the grammar spectrum. “Mine is not the Grammar Judgment Table,” she writes, and whether it’s the great fewer/less debate or the abbreviations of online conversation, Jovin remains generously noncommittal. “You can do it either way,” she says of whether to use the Oxford comma, and she refuses to denounce the “Ghostbusters” for using who instead of whom or the makers of “Star Trek” for boldly splitting their infinitive.

Not everyone Jovin encounters, however, has such a Zen approach to the language. In many of the book’s anecdotes, people approach the Grammar Table in groups, calling on Jovin to officiate a dispute. Others vent about family members or friends (who may or may not be standing right next to them). And yet, as Jovin presents them, these grievances sound rehearsed, well-aired, largely cheerful. In terms of low-key rage, they belong to a different order from the colleague taking credit for your work or the neighbor parking in your space. In Jovin’s transcriptions, grammar quibbles seem on the whole to be implicitly ironic, or at least aware of their inconsequentiality. They are reliable staples, just some of the ballast with which families and long-standing friendship groups make up their daily conversation. Maybe, even, they are stand-ins, part of the psychopathology of everyday life. Perhaps that irritation with your husband who pronounces nuclear as nucular, or with the aged relative who still types two spaces after a full stop, is simply the visible tip of a deeper frustration. In New York, someone tells Jovin that she fired her therapist for saying “between you and I” (using the subject pronoun I instead of the object pronoun me). I would love to know how the therapist interpreted that.

The format of “Rebel with a Clause,” however, does not lend itself to sustained contemplation. Jovin’s journey is narrated in brief vignettes that highlight her own dogged buoyancy and the competitive pedantry of the people she meets. The most interesting moments are when her patients, such as they are, begin to consider their relationship to grammar: often a sense of memory fading, of knowledge lost, the wistfulness that a middle-school sharpness has become blunted with time. Some, to their surprise and Jovin’s delight, pull up mnemonics acquired decades ago (fanboys for the coordinating conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so); others are suspicious of novelty, as when Jovin defends her up-to-date “Chicago Manual of Style” only to be told that her interlocutor’s mother would “probably prefer an older edition because it would be more purist.” There is so much about language and authority rolled up in this statement, but Jovin’s narrative has already moved on to the next scene.

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For a book on grammar that runs to nearly 400 pages, actual advice is fairly scanty. Many of Jovin’s 49 chapters squeeze considerable mileage out of relatively minor points: past vs passed; than vs then; affect vs effect. Jovin has written usage manuals, but with its folksy, peripatetic arrangement, “Rebel with a Clause” isn’t quite one of them. Strong on charm, then, but without enough of either prescription or reflection, the “Grammar Table” finds itself falling between two (grammar) stools.

Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London and author of “Index, A History of the.”

Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian

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