Alaska grammar nerds will be heartened to know that a self-described roving grammarian is in the state dispensing advice.
Ellen Jovin is a language teacher, author of the book “Rebel With a Clause” and, literally, the woman behind the Grammar Table, where she sits awaiting grammar and general language questions from passersby.
Jovin calls the Upper West Side of Manhattan home, and Alaska is the Grammar Table’s 49th state, with only Hawaii remaining.
Jovin had the Grammar Table set up in front of Title Wave Books in Anchorage Friday, complete with several reference books and a friendly attitude.
And Jovin says that’s the idea. She’s not here to scold people about their grammar, she just wants to talk.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ellen Jovin: Well, the original idea just came to me at home, so it was originally not all over the country, it was outside of our apartment building. And I just thought it’d be fun to be on the street and talk to people about language. I’m sick of being on the computer all the time. So there are lots of language groups on social media on Facebook, for example. And it’s cool, because you can talk to people in any part of the world. But then, eventually, I found that was not having enough face-to-face time. So I wanted light, air, conversation with human beings, where I could see what they were doing with their hands and their faces. And yeah, so I just did it one day in the fall of 2018. And people came up to me right away. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
Casey Grove: What was it like in the pandemic, though? Did you have to pack things up and just kind of put it on hold?
EJ: I did. And we had just, when the pandemic hit, we had gone to 47 states. So we were missing Hawaii, Alaska and Connecticut. but I had a deadline for a book, so I just stayed home and wrote the book and waited for things to clear up.
CG: Gotcha. How does it usually go? I mean, how does this work with people? And then, how are they different around the country?
EJ: So usually, when we show up someplace, we have to figure out where to go. There are considerations with the Grammar Table that one might not think of. You have to have, first of all, the weather. I’m now weather obsessed, because I cannot get my books wet. But so we look around for traffic, the places, and often they’re near coffee shops, or ice cream shops, those are great locations often. And I pop down and then people start coming up. And, you know, it may be that the traffic is thinner than some other places, but eventually someone will come talk to me, it always happens. And I’d say the variations are, you hear it mostly in the pronunciation, that varies more.
Do I sound like I have an accent to you?
CG: I can’t tell.
EJ: Yeah, because I can’t tell with you, either. So that’s not really something I’m experiencing here. But there might be like local slang that I don’t know about. In the South, when I was in the South, that’s where I had the biggest difference, because that, you know, it sounds quite different. I was a Yankee there, clearly. And I also think there’s, in some places, there’s more of a table culture, like some places people are used to having tables on the street. And others, I think they’re more confused that there’s a table there, then that there’s a grammar table there. Like either way, it’s weird.
CG: And then, I mean, how does that work? Like, maybe it’s different with different people. But what’s kind of like the typical interaction, like?
EJ: There’s a lot of variety. What I enjoy a lot is when people just come right up to me, they don’t even look surprised, and they just ask a grammar question without saying hello, because that just feels like, OK, this is a, you know, this is a service that makes sense to people. And I just get a kick out of that. Other times, people will stand about 20 feet away as though they think I’m about to give them a quiz, you know, which I never do. I don’t tackle people and make them conjugate verbs or something like that. That doesn’t happen. In some ways. I think there’s less variety than people think. I like to think of it as the thing we have in common, rather than something that separates us.
CG: So what have you noticed so far here? I mean, how’s it going? And are there things that you have seen Alaskans have trouble with or, you know, a question that comes up with with us?
EJ: I don’t have enough of a sample size. because it’s been kind of rainy. We’re trying to coordinate with the sun. Now the sun has been coming out more and more even as we’ve been speaking. So now, I mean, I was outside a coffee shop yesterday, and people came up and we talked about some of the same things I’ve talked about in other places. Like one of them was effect and affect, with an A versus an E, like that kind of stuff. And then I had another teacher come up, and we talked about, you know, what she does with her students. So I mean, we’re all doing a lot of the same things, and I hope, in a way, that the table serves to remind people of this wonderful medium we have in common, which is language. It’s pretty exciting.