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Got grammar questions? Charleston gets language help, advice from sidewalk grammar guru

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Ellen Jovin Grammar Table

The Grammar Table's Ellen Jovin answers questions and chats with Matthew Zalesak (left) and Andrew Zalesak (right) on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, after the Turkey Day Run in Charleston. Provided/Brandt Johnson

From comma crises to capitalization conundrums, Ellen Jovin has the answers, and she wants to help.

Jovin brought her traveling, pop-up Grammar Table to Charleston on Thursday morning to answer strangers’ questions about punctuation, sentence structure and everything between.

Her setup is relatively simple: a small folding table, a stack of grammar reference books, and a colorful sign peppered with such phrases as “Ask a Question!" and "Grammar Chat!"

She started the Grammar Table on a whim outside her Manhattan, N.Y., apartment building in September 2018. 

“I've lived in that neighborhood in New York for close to 25 years, and I was meeting people I'd never seen before,” she said.

With around 8 million people, New York City has a lot of strangers. But it was nice to chat with people who otherwise would have rushed by on their way to the nearby subway station, Jovin said. 

Since then, the table has grown into a dedicated passion project, complete with a book set to be published in 2021 and a documentary in progress about Jovin’s experiences as she travels the country with the Grammar Table.

For her, the Grammar Table has grown into more than just questions and answers about possessive nouns or split infinitives. 

“What's really transforming for me about this is a chance to go into all these different communities to talk to people I would never have met about things that we get a kick out of together,” she said. “It’s like nonstop comedy for me.”

Jovin admitted that grammar can sometimes get a bad rap, and one of her goals is to reduce some of the anxiety that surrounds it. One way to do this is by practicing “grammar etiquette.”

“I don't correct people. First of all, I don't care. You know, it's not like I walk through life thinking, ‘Oh, that apostrophe isn't there, this is going to ruin my dinner,’ ” she said. “That's not how I relate to the topic myself personally. I try to be welcoming.”

The table started last year, but Jovin, 54, has been a lover of all things words for most of her life.

She studied literature in graduate school and spoke four languages by the time she finished. She’s taught English at a collegiate level, worked as a freelance writer and started a corporate communication training business with her husband.

“I'm basically a really hardcore word nerd, so I've done a bunch of things, but they've all circled around this one thing, which is language,” she said.

The Grammar Table also has provided a perfect opportunity for Jovin to learn new things from the strangers she meets along the way.

“I mean, I love sharing regional habits, regional slang, I've had teenagers teach me slang. It's really meant to be a shared experience, and I think that's partly why the response has been positive,” she said.

Jovin willingly admits that she doesn’t have the answers to everything. In Asheville, N.C., someone asked her what the plural of “y’all” is. She was stumped.

“Sometimes people ask me questions I don't know, and as I'm heading farther South, I've had more questions I don't know the answer to,” Jovin said.

In Charleston, Jovin set up her table in Marion Square around 10 a.m. Thanksgiving morning.

Within 15 minutes, she’d already chatted with three different English teachers. Later that morning, she had a “scintillating conversation” about the difference between hyphens and dashes, even sharing a rhyme she'd invented on the subject: "A dash is for panache/A hyphen is for triflin'."

Over the course of about an hour and a half, she answered questions about semicolons and exclamation points, ellipses and verb conjugations. 

“It really almost made me cry. It was just so lovely to be around on a day where people are together. They're laughing and they're teasing each other, and you just have the table as a kind of an anchor for this cross-generational laughter,” Jovin said. “It’s very beautiful to me.”

South Carolina is the 35th state Jovin has visited with the Grammar Table. Her goal is to visit all 50 states by spring 2020. She’ll road trip from New York to Las Vegas in December and plans to visit Alaska and Hawaii in March. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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