On Reading and Grammar: Rebel with a Clause

July 25, 2022

On Reading and Grammar: Rebel with a Clause

book review

Mostly, I read on my Kindle. Book weight taxes me when I am traveling, when I am reading lying down, and when I am reading more than one book at a time. (By the way, I read less often than I used to, not nearly often enough, and I miss the written word!)

From time to time, though, I buy a hardcover book. Something I want to have, in a primal way. Or a cookbook. (The Kindle works well in the kitchen to follow an online recipe, but I don’t enjoy cookbooks on an E-reader.)

Recently, I heard the very end of a Scott Simon interview with a woman who’s written a new grammar book. She sounded joyful! So when I got home I checked the Weekend Edition Saturday site and “met” Ellen Jovin, whose latest book – the one she was talking about – is Rebel with a Clause.

Grammar tests me. I have never diagrammed a sentence in my life, and I know precious little about the parts of a sentence, tenses, etc. Honors English grad with no real understanding of language: that’s me. (Do you capitalize the word after a colon or not?) The problem showed itself in my second year of college. I wrote for The Round Table, the four to eight page weekly at Beloit College. Impressive, for a school that had 1600 students when I enrolled and about 1000 when I graduated. Anyway, mid-trimester, the male staffers did a feature on local barber shops, including those that still offered straight razor shaves. We had 8-10 of us, and one barber shop per reporter. I don’t recall the cost; more than two bits, but less than $5.00, for sure.

Off I went for a trim and a beard removal. The experience went well, I wrote it up, and I attended the next staff meeting. My report appeared first on the screen, aided by the overhead projector. Beaming, but only for moments, as Alan Perlis, a young English professor and the Round Table advisor, laid into me. The problem? A series of words (mine), the first of which started with a capital letter and the last of which preceded, immediately, “appropriate end punctuation.” Not a sentence, it seemed. Noun. Verb. Shamed. Badly.

(Per Merriam-Webster, a sentence is “a word, clause, or phrase or a group of clauses or phrases forming a syntactic unit which expresses an assertion, a question, a command, a wish, an exclamation, or the performance of an action, that in writing usually begins with a capital letter and concludes with appropriate end punctuation … .” Not so much, my words!)

I have improved over almost 50 years, but that experience still leaves me with feelings of inadequacy. It also has me reading grammar texts from time to time, to try to develop a better “in the bones” understanding about how to put words together.

Anyway – digressions are another sensitive subject, for other reasons – I started reading Rebel with a Clause last night. Ms. Jovin, who has studied 25 languages, started setting up Grammar Table on the Upper West Side of Manhattan several years ago. Free answers to grammar questions. Popular enough, it was, that she ended up in 47 states, pre-Covid. (Her explanation for missing Connecticut – yes, the next over state from New York – offers a laugh and a reminder that we should all wish for CT pizza.)

The book, in part recounts her Grammar Table experiences, but it also demystifies grammar and updates rules. Yes, we can split an infinitive. The Oxford comma makes sense, sometimes, but common sense will often overcome that missing comma. (A pox on posters who turn the obvious into silliness, for want of that comma.) Because can start a sentence.

The book will surely put a smile on your face. Ms. Jovin recounts the lady who one-upped her husband on an apostrophe to pluralize their last name. And the husband, who laughed. The little lady from another country who needed confirmation that she can emphasize the second syllable when she says fi-NANCE. (Imagine, being from a foreign land and worrying, often, if you’re getting it right. Fitting in!) My favorite, so far: the very tall MTA worker who said he can do two things: reach for stuff and write. He told Ms. Jovin he works for the MTA because “you can’t make any money as a writer.”

I know, I know! Reviewing a book before you’ve gotten through the first chapter makes little sense. Buy this one anyway. I’m glad I did, and that I can touch it and turn its pages.

Be well and stay cool!


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