By Margie Smith Holt
Upper West Siders like to think of ourselves as not only accepting, but also among the most well-read of New Yorkers. So how is it that native daughter Ellen Jovin—aka the grammar whiz who totes a table around town, offering free tips on syntax and structure—got booted out of a subway station in her own backyard last Tuesday night, surrounded by no less (fewer?) than three bookstores, as many libraries, and who knows how many poets, playwrights, authors, editors, screenwriters, journalists, literary luminaries, and general lovers of language?
An MTA worker called the police, Jovin said. When the cops showed up, they told her (“with unimpeachable courtesy,” she stresses), that she had to leave. She did. But not before dispensing “advice on the possessive of Charles and the advisability of the Oxford comma in complex lists.”
Was it that divisive Oxford comma that caused the commotion? A complaint from a commuter traumatized by grade-school sentence diagramming?
The jury’s out. Jovin’s become a(n?) UWS institution since she started the Grammar Table in 2018. She says she’s been at the 72nd Street subway station multiple times without incident and is trying to find out if the MTA has changed its policies.
“I try to be respectful of public space,” she told West Side Rag.
Jovin says she doesn’t want to break any rules. This is a woman still scarred from being benched once at recess for stepping outside the playground lines. Who counts her elementary school handwriting award (bestowed some 40 years after attending said school) among her highest accolades. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out a grammar nerd is a rule follower.
Jovin’s not the first New York City grammarian to be vexed by city transit. “Comma Queen” Mary Norris may be best known for her years as a copy editor at the New Yorker, but she had a side hustle penning a blog called “The Alternate Side Parking Reader.” (I arrived in New York in September of 1977 in a ’65 Plymouth Fury II, and within 24 hours I had racked up something like $200 in parking tickets.)
And like any good New Yorker, Jovin’s not going to let a little subway brouhaha shut her down. She is, as her new book attests, a Rebel with a Clause, and it’s a big city. One of her regular spots is Verdi Square—outside the subway station. She said she only moved inside because it’s starting to get dark earlier. She’s already looking for ways to keep the grammar train running above ground: “I’m going to have to invest in disco lights.”
(Does anyone else hear Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction” in the background?)
For the record, the authorities suggested it was fine for her to set up her table in the subway stations at Times Square or Grand Central. Maybe they thought the UWS has had all the grammar lessons it needs? Feel free to prove us wrong in the comments.
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