Four years ago I decided I needed to host a pop-up grammar-advice stand. The plan was simple: I’d sit on the streets of New York City and help people with their questions. I ordered a folding table, drew a “Grammar Table” sign and waited for the weather to cool. On a September day I walked to a small park near my apartment building, propped up my sign, and began answering questions from passersby.
The idea was natural to me because I’m a lifelong professional grammar nerd. I’ve taught grammar and writing for years, written and edited professionally, and studied more than 25 languages for fun. Behind me, during Zoom calls, are shelves of grammar books alphabetized from Albanian to Zulu. Some may think it is a total conversation killer but trust me when I tell you that people love talking about grammar — and fighting about it, too.
That fall day, it took about 30 seconds before I got my first question and the inquiries continued from there. People wanted to oust their spouses’ errant apostrophes, cram commas into underpunctuated clauses (“Oxford comma or bust!”), raze past tense forms used as past participles (“I should have ran, ugh!”) and more.
California’s movement to save its Indigenous languages began about 30 years ago. My childhood fascination with foreign languages led me to join it.
But any rancor was mostly feigned and the chats cathartic as I kept the Grammar Table moving around the city over the following months. Fights over things like “traveled” versus “travelled” (both are correct) or “lose” versus “loose” led to new friendships and a sense of public fellowship.
I wasn’t the only one who felt it. One gloomy afternoon during the contentious confirmation hearings over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, a woman stopped and stared at the Grammar Table. “This is the best thing I have ever seen in my life,” she said. She looked as though she might cry.
I like to think she understood that the Grammar Table is only partly about grammar. It is also about community, about surprise, about humor (yes indeed, “poopyhead” is written as one word!). It is about the ritual of gentle, dorky debate with a shared sense of purpose, focused on this thing we have in common — language. We all poop and we all punctuate (though some of us do the latter on only a part-time basis).
Besides, how mad can you really get over an Oxford comma (the comma before the “and” in a list)? One man affected Hulk-like rage over it, but he left smiling with his brother so they could pick up their sister from the airport.
I’ve answered questions from writers, editors, small children, seniors, people down on their luck, people high on their luck, conservatives, liberals and hot dog vendors. The Grammar Table has been visited by teachers, firefighters and a woman with a tattoo of a footnote on her foot. Many of my visitors have chatted happily with one another.
My husband began filming the Grammar Table encounters for a documentary, and within six months of my first pop-up in that park, we were on the road. By the time the pandemic grounded us in early 2020, we had made it to 47 states.
People argued good-naturedly wherever we went. In West Virginia, a man told us that his wife, who was standing next to him, hated it when he ended a sentence with a preposition. She confirmed it. While you can actually end with a preposition, what made these people stand out to me was their good-natured ribbing — they were grinning the whole time. They embodied the idea that grammar teasing has to be grounded in mutual respect or it won’t work. The woman even began reciting prepositions in alphabetical order. “About, above, across, after, against,” she sang.
It is my policy to shut down mean-spiritedness at the Grammar Table, but there is so little of it that I’ve hardly ever had to do that. Apparently a pop-up grammar-advice stand with a hand-drawn sign is not a magnet for meanies.
There are serious challenges to our public life that the bonding potential of dependent and independent clauses cannot solve, of course. Americans must still coexist with other Americans whose views they abhor. Lives lived too much online are vulnerable to misunderstanding and rage, to dangerous oversimplification and dehumanization.
In fact-checking the book I wrote about my adventures, I learned more about some of the people I had talked to on the road. I could never have guessed at the extreme social and political views that some of them held — the grammar chats kept all that at bay. Whatever I feel about some of their ideas and actions, I am still glad we had moments that created at least a tiny link.
The small bonds that come from mowing someone’s lawn, holding an elevator door or making verbs agree with their subjects support the larger connections we need for our communities to thrive.
I’ve now been all over with the Grammar Table — to towns as small as 1,000 people and cities of millions. Start talking to me about God or politics as I sit there and I will politely remind you that is not what I’m there for. (Concluding preposition! Fight me!)
Then I will ask if you have a grammar comment or question. We can always cooperate on untangling a sentence or placing a semicolon in the perfect spot. Can comma fights unite a fractured nation? Maybe not, but small things accumulated grow big.
Ellen Jovin is the author of “Rebel With a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian.” @grammartable
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