Why Ellen Jovin — Creator of The Grammar Table — Lives on the Upper West Side

By Eileen Katz

Ellen Jovin is the founder of a communication skills training consultancy, creator of a language-learning website, and most importantly the creator of an Upper West Side institution: the Grammar Table! Her grammar advice table, which is often set up outside the 72nd Street Subway station on Broadway, has been featured in West Side Rag and the New York Times. We sat down with Ellen to talk about why she lives on the Upper West Side and how she got the idea for her project.

Should I consider this a double “Why the West Side”? One for the Grammar Table and one for Ellen Jovin?

I feel they’re kind of integrated at this point! I’ve always really loved language and everything I’ve done in my career has intersected with that. I think this table may be the culmination of my language career though!

Let’s step back for a minute. Why the West Side, Ellen?

I’m from LA originally but I moved here on purpose. I’d visited a few times when I was in college, loved it and knew I wanted to live here. It was 1990 and I didn’t have a job or an apartment but knew this is where I wanted to live. I started in the Village but this was my destiny.

What do you like about living up here?

The park is very important to me…

Whoa! Now we have to jump to the classic challenge: Riverside or Central?

Well, I am Central Park, but recently I’ve been trying to get back into shape so I’ve been practicing running in Riverside Park to prepare for Central.

Ok so now we can go back to what you like about living up here…

I’m incredibly lazy about certain things, so I have to say I love the convenience of it. I’m in the epicenter of so many grocery stores…wait, no that’s not the right use of that word. Someone at the grammar table complained about how I used that word so I have to think on that. Anyway, I’m in the center of so many grocery stores , close to the subway, two parks…it’s hedonism! And the hyperactivity, which I kind of like.

So how does the Grammar Table fit in to all of this?

I was sitting in my apartment this summer and I just suddenly thought it would be fun to put a table outside with a sign calling it the grammar table and see what would happen.

For real? That’s it?

Yup! I revisited it in my head a few times and then started quietly looking online for a table.

What was it about this particular table that spoke to you?

Well, I have to be able to carry it myself so I was looking for something narrow – this is 20 inches, not the usual 24. Every inch/pound makes a difference when you’re doing this by yourself! And it couldn’t be too small either cause no one would notice it. Then one night I drew a sign on my iPad and sent it out to be made.

What’s your goal for this table? What’s your grammar history?

I’ve been on Facebook since 2009 and I’ve always posted language stuff online. And they’re similar to the kinds of questions people ask me about at the grammar table. You see, I was looking for a way to spend some time away from my computer, I thought it would be funny, I like doing things that I think are funny and fun. I wasn’t too happy with how the last election went so I’ve spent a lot of time since then getting involved politically and the one thing that struck me as I started spending time in this effort is that people often talk about the loss of community. That’s been a really important theme for me. And as I’ve thought about it, it became clear that people are joining these online chats and communities but I wanted to find something with real interaction. I spoke at this language conference this summer and it became clear to me that when I engage in conversation about language, I am interacting with a variety of different people – different backgrounds, orientations, a truly diverse group that I probably wouldn’t otherwise engage with. But we all connect as language nerds…something we share and love. We can have wonderful animated conversations about gerunds and…

Wait. I’m sorry. What’s a gerund?

It’s got to do with -ing words

Ah!

Yes, so I can be having these wonderful conversations with people from all over the world, some of whom I know don’t share my personal beliefs, but when we talk about language it’s all good. Without rancor, it’s all good.

So in a way, you use the rhetoric of language as a kind of safe territory for conversation and building relationships and community. Kind of like sports! Like how some people who may have nothing in common except that they’re Mets fans can suddenly spend hours together reminiscing about the summer of ’86.

Yeah. It’s like someone wouldn’t say I’m never going to talk to Uncle Ricky again because he splits his infinitives. Talking about language is usually safe.

So tell me what happened the first time you set up the grammar table.

I went out there and I felt a little silly. Not a lot silly. A little self-conscious. I’ve rarely just sat at a table that wasn’t a normal like raffle table or something. And I picked my spot and it took off from there! It’s so funny because people seemed very confused at first. New Yorkers seem to dislike staring at something new and I’d see people kind of peeking over their phones, turning the corner, then circling back again for a quick second glance. Then others just walk right up and without any preamble just say “Where does the apostrophe go in such and such.” They just immediately embrace it, fully accept the premise and dive in. I get very excited by people by who do that. It’s a pure exchange.

What has been challenging for you with this table, other than the fickleness of the weather this fall?

There are so many grammar myths out there and so many things are taught that just aren’t true! For instance, I find in my business writing classes that 80% of the people think you can’t start a sentence with “because.” And that’s just not true! That’s a myth. But all these professionals will try to avoid it.

So what are some of the most contentious debates you’ve had at the table?

What gets people really mad, and it’s not technically a grammar issue, is the spacing issue after periods. We all learned that it’s two spaces after a period but that was before software and computer usage became the norm. So even in the past when manuscripts were submitted for publication with the double space, graphic design would remove it. I tell parents to stop telling kids two spaces. Pick your grammar battles!

Why the West Side for the table? What is it you find that’s unique about this neighborhood for it?

I haven’t done an audit or anything, but I think the number of writers and editors up here, or people who are involved in some business around the written word is so great up here. And people just come up to the table because they love reading or writing, books or words. Although I set it up as a grammar table, I did intend it to be a place for a larger discussion on language. Whatever people are interested in about words is great! Whenever we can have a forum to talk about the linguistic glue that binds us is a win!

Has anyone stumped you at the table?

Yeah! I don’t know everything! I’m a big fan of saying “I don’t know.” I believe strongly in grammar humility. Language can be messy with a lot of gray area. And I’m always researching for the best answer. That’s why I encourage people to email me with questions, too.

What’s your goal for the Grammar Table? Will we see franchises and pop ups?

When I set it up I had no idea what would happen. It got a much bigger response than I expected. But it’s created this space for dialogue without rancor. It just seems so many people who come up are relieved to have something else to talk about than the worries in their lives. And if people had been feeling badly about not remembering as much as they should’ve about what they were taught about grammar, there’s an unexpectedness about being able to resolve that right at a table at their subway station, which is another kind of relief. It’s more potent than I had anticipated. And it’s interesting when one person comes up to talk and then someone else will see us and want to join in and it’s just a growing social conversation…

Or possibly a new dating service.

That would make me so happy. I actually do know people who’ve connected over the online language groups so it might be possible. The logical next extension.

If they were going to name a block after you what would it be?

Verdi Square renamed to Grammar Table Square.

When they declare Ellen Jovin/Grammar Table day how would you like people to celebrate?

I think if everyone went to all the bookstores on the Upper West Side and bought as many books as they could and actually read them, that would be amazing. I’m interested in language love. The culture that emerges from our common language!

To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.

COLUMNS | 13 comments | permalink
    1. Edwin Bacher says:

      “Verdi Square renamed to Grammar Table Square.”

      Whoops!

    2. Isaac B. Brooks says:

      “They’re Met fans”, not “there.’

    3. Linda E. Goodman says:

      Hi Ellen,
      One day soon, I’ll come visit you. In the meantime, the word you’re looking for with regard to the multitude of grocery stores in the neighborhood is PROXIMITY. Given the proximity of so many grocery stores, we’ll never go without the basics, come hell, high water or hurricanes or blizzards.

      Best,
      Linda
      Language Lover

    4. K.W. says:

      It’s feeling bad, not feeling “badly.” Otherwise, hooray! Or Hurrah! Or whatever….

      • Arlene says:

        I was going to write about the feeling bad/badly statement when I discovered you’d already done so. Way to go!

        • Martha Weissberg says:

          I,too, found it interesting that this woman used “badly” instead of “bad.” If you feel “badly,” your fingers are aging, as are mine.
          Some grammar consultant! But her point of view is endearing.

          • Ellen Jovin says:

            Please don’t be concerned, folks. I consistently say “I feel bad,” not “I feel badly.” I have been saying “I feel bad” my whole life. (Well, only if there is actually something to feel bad about, which there usually isn’t.) And thank you for the nice comments. I hope you will stop by and chat one day. I love meeting new people from the neighborhood. In fact, that’s been one of the coolest things for me about Grammar Table!

    5. Eileen says:

      Eileen Katz, interviewer for “Why The West Side” here! I did forget to put a disclaimer about all grammar in this piece! It is written as a conversation, and I take responsibility for all that is not grammatically correct….or properly spelled! Happy Holidays to all!

    6. Reynold says:

      She is very helpful and astute without being pedantic. It’s great that she has the courage to put herself out there, especially in a field where it’s easy to make a mistake. Go talk to her, it’s a cheerful experience. A new bright light in our magnificent UWS constellation.

    7. Becks says:

      Me and my friend or my friend and I?

      • Kathy Hogan says:

        It depends on whether it’s the subject or object. Examples: “My friend and I are waiting.” and “They are waiting for me and my friend.” Sadly, people have forgotten. When a child would say something like, “Me and Jimmy and hungry,” the parent would say “Jimmy and I are hungry.” Now the parents don’t seem to know any better! Isn’t this taught in school any more?

    8. Katherine Cole says:

      How about “10 items or less” at the exoress lines? I did a survey and hardly any store passed. Even WF in some locations!

    9. Steve Vitoff says:

      great column, thank you. . . . especially in the era of nonstop screen staring, we have an untapped longing for community and connection. we half smile and giggle at things we see on little screens, as if the same things had been uttered by a real person. lifting away from these ubiquitous screens carries us into the world of real people people who are really talking, using real voices and real words. and when the words are arranged just so – maybe verbally or on a page – to achieve a nice level of clarity – you reach a kind of grammatical consensus. and when that consensus is in doubt, GT arises – in front of the subway – to help smooth the path to mutual understanding