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 plays. Is it an oxford comma? Or is it there to include a restrictive appositive (in other words, to let us know that Rona used to be my roommate)? In “Rebel With a Clause,” Ellen Jovin uses this example to show that even when grammar rules are applied rigorously, we can still get into trouble. Also, the rules are just conventions. “There is no office, that’s the great thing about English,” she writes in a sentence that ironically practices what he preaches. “It’s like the Wild Wild West.”

But of course, clarity and tone are important. For two decades, Jovin has run a communication skills company that caters to business professionals and trains them to express themselves more effectively. In 2018 she then decided to make her expertise available to the general public. She packed her style guides and a folding table and hit the road, parking on sidewalks across the country – 47 cities in 47 states before Covid intervened – and offering grammar lessons to passers-by. Part handbook, part travelogue, Rebel with a Clause is the story of the grammar table, a sort of linguist’s version of Lucy’s psychiatric shelter in Peanuts.

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

When it comes to advice, Jovin positions himself on the less prescriptive end of the grammar spectrum. “Mine isn’t the Grammar Judgment Table,” she writes, and whether it’s the great less/less debate or the shortcuts of online conversation, Jovin remains generously noncommittal. “You can do it either way,” she says of using the Oxford comma, and she refuses to blame the “Ghostbusters” for using who instead of who, or the creators of “Star Trek” , because they boldly shared their infinitive.

Not everyone Jovin meets has such a Zen approach to language, however. In many of the book’s anecdotes, people approach the grammar table in groups and call out to Jovin to have an argument. Others make fun of family members or friends (who may or may not be standing right next to them). And yet, as Jovin utters, these complaints sound rehearsed, well aired, largely cheerful. You belong to a different order when it comes to quiet anger than the colleague who takes credit for your work or the neighbor who parks in your parking lot. Overall, in Jovin’s transcriptions, grammatical quibbles seem implicitly ironic, or at least aware of their triviality. They’re dependable staples, just part of the ballast that families and longtime circles of friends fill their daily conversations with. They may even be proxies, part of the psychopathology of everyday life. Maybe that irritation with your husband speaking out nuclear how nuclearor with the elderly relative who types two spaces after a period, is just the visible tip of a deeper frustration. In New York, someone tells Jovin that she fired her therapist for saying “between you and me” (using the subject pronoun I instead of the object pronoun me). I would like to know how the therapist interpreted this.

However, the “rebel with a clause” format is not suitable for long-term reflection. Jovin’s journey is told in brief vignettes that highlight her own dogged élan and the competing pedantry of the people she meets. The most interesting moments are when their patients, as they are, begin to reflect on their relationship to grammar: often a sense of memory fading, of lost knowledge, a wistfulness that a middle-school acuity has dulled over time. Some, to their surprise and Jovin’s delight, invoke mnemonics they learned decades ago (fanboys for the coordinating conjunctions to the, and, still, but, or, still, So); others are suspicious of novelty, as when Jovin defends her latest “Chicago Manual of Style,” only to be told that her interviewer’s mother “would probably prefer an older edition because it would be more puristic.” There is so much language and authority in that statement, but Jovin’s narration has already moved to the next scene.

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For a book on grammar that is almost 400 pages long, the actual advice is pretty sparse. Many of Jovin’s 49 chapters squeeze considerable miles out of relatively small dots: past vs passed; as vs then; affect vs Effect. Jovin wrote instruction manuals, but “Rebel with a Clause,” with its folksy, peripatetic arrangement, isn’t really one of them. Strong on charm then, but without enough prescription or reflection, the “Grammar Table” is found between two (grammar) chairs.

Dennis Duncan is Lecturer in English at University College London and author of Index, A History of the.

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