South Bend featured prominently in Ellen Jovin's Grammar Table book 'Rebel with a Clause'
Back on a hot day in the summer of 2019, author and communications teacher Ellen Jovin sat at a folding table she'd set up outside South Bend's Chocolate Café on South Michigan Street.
As Jovin recounts in her recently-released book, "Rebel with a Clause," a blonde college student named Lee approached her.
"Grammar and I do not work well together," Lee announced. She went on to explain that she disliked commas unless they are followed by a "fanboys."
"Fanboys," Jovin explains in her book, is a mnemonic device often taught in schools to help students remember to add a comma before the seven coordinating conjunctions ― “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet” and “so" ― that are used to connect two sentences that could each stand alone.
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While Jovin and Lee's interaction may seem random or even a little strange to most, this is just an average conversation at Jovin's Grammar Table, the central subject of "Rebel with a Clause."
At the table, Jovin, a self-described grammar nerd, invites passersby to ask her questions about grammar, language and words.
"People ask all kinds of questions," she said. "It can be about verb forms, punctuation, apostrophes, quotation marks. Also, people ask me about things that are definitely outside of what people would consider the realm of grammar, like pronunciation and word history."
Why South Bend?
South Bend was just one of 49 stops Jovin and her husband, Brandt Johnson, made with Grammar Table between 2018 and 2020 while working on "Rebel with a Clause." The book recounts Jovin's experiences setting up the table and answering grammar questions in every U.S. state ― except for Alaska, Hawaii and Connecticut, which she was unable to visit because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Since the book came out on July 19, 2022, Jovin and Johnson have been able to host Grammar Table in Alaska and Connecticut so that all 50 states are represented in Johnson's upcoming documentary, "Grammar Table: The Movie.")
When selecting cities in which to host Grammar Table, Jovin said, she focused on places she'd never been before.
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"I tried to mix it up so that we got small towns and big cities. I was (often) in parks and libraries," she recalled. "The smallest town we went to was Red Cloud, Neb., which has between 1,000 and 1,100 residents. We were on their main street, and that was great. Even there, with 1,000-something people, there are still plenty of grammar nerds."
To check Indiana off the map, Jovin originally planned to stop in Indianapolis but changed her itinerary after her cousin in Grand Rapids reminded her that Pete Buttigieg was, at the time, the city’s mayor.
“Among mayors, he’s probably the biggest language nerd,” Jovin told The Tribune in 2019. “I don’t think he’ll be offended if he sees that. It’s a compliment if you’re a language nerd.”
A love for language
Without a doubt, Jovin herself is a language nerd.
She and Johnson are the owners of Syntaxis, a New York City-based company that teaches corporate communication skills such as business writing, email etiquette and, of course, grammar to companies, non-profits and government organizations.
Jovin also has worked as a freelance writer and even studied 25 languages as part of a large-scale project where she reviewed language-learning products. Currently, she said, she has a great deal of fluency in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese, though her Portuguese is a little weaker than the others.
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At Grammar Table, "Sometimes I talked with people about other languages," she said. "Sometimes I talked to people in other languages, and that's always huge. I love that."
Though learning languages can be hard, the thing that drives Jovin to study so many is simple: her love for words.
"Words are the things that connect us as human beings, so that, to me, is just inherently fascinating. Without language, it would be really hard to maintain a large city, for example," she said. "With foreign language study, I love unraveling the mystery of the sounds that you hear coming from people's mouths around the world … I don't know why I like it so much, but I always have, and people like different stuff. This is what I like. For me, conjugating verbs in a new language is massively fun."
The origins of Grammar Table
Before starting Grammar Table, Jovin, while living in a New York City apartment, was a member of many Facebook groups on language learning and grammar.
"I loved the ability of social media to connect with people with similar language interests around the world, but I started to get so crabby because I was on the internet so much," she recalled. "I started to reflect on how I was living in a city I love, talking about things I love, but with people who weren't in front of me. I thought, 'Hey, I can just do all this grammar action on the street.'"
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In the summer of 2018, Jovin purchased the table and set it up outside her apartment building. The location, right near a busy subway stop, attracted many people.
Initially, she said, she planned to host Grammar Table "just for fun," but after multiple visitors suggested she write a book, Jovin, already a published author, contacted her agent.
As Jovin continued to travel with Grammar Table, she realized the world was full of "grammar nerds" like herself.
"For some people, (Grammar Table) is like a moth to the flame thing. They see the word 'grammar,' and they come close, but they don't have a question," she said. "So I started asking people a question if they don't have one."
One of her favorite questions to ask curious visitors is whether the possessive of Charles has an "s" after the apostrophe. She asks: When saying "the desk belongs to Charles," is it Charles' desk or Charles's desk?
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"I like that question because both answers are right," Jovin said. "You can either add the 's' after the apostrophe or leave it off … both answers are right, so everyone is happy."
Connecting people through grammar
In her travels, Jovin said, South Bend "really did stand out." She hosted Grammar Table at multiple locations in the city, including in front of Chocolate Café and in front of South Bend Brew Werks on South Michigan Street.
"I had a funny conversation with this guy in South Bend about sentence diagramming because he wanted to know if it's a tool that was used heavily in my own grammar education …," she said. "A lot of kids hated doing it. It was sort of like torture for them, whereas I lived for it. I'm still in touch with my eighth-grade English teacher who taught me this stuff."
The man asked Jovin how she feels that schools no longer teach sentence diagramming. She said she told him she felt fine and that he seemed excited.
"I remember he said something like, 'I never liked diagramming. My wife likes it because she likes to arrange things on the windowsill … line them up, make them orderly," she recalled.
Jovin said she is also still in touch with a woman she met in South Bend who proposed merging the words "lay" and "lie" to reduce confusion. They follow each other on Twitter and later saw each other at a grammar conference in Texas.
"What I love about grammar stuff is that I can talk to anyone. I don't care what you believe," Jovin said. "We can sit there … and haggle over a comma and laugh and shake hands and be friendly."
Email Tribune staff writer Claire Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend featured in Ellen Jovin's Grammar Table Rebel with a Clause