Talking words

Jayson Jacoby/Baker City HeraldEllen Jovin set up her Grammar Table Monday morning in downtown Baker City. Jovin, who lives in New York City, is writing a book about her experiences offering free grammar advice, or just a friendly conversation, in multiple states.

Ellen Jovin sits behind a table on a sidewalk beside Baker City’s Main Street, bracing for a confrontation with the always conniving comma.

She’s also prepared to penetrate the mysteries of the apostrophe.

The sign affixed to Jovin’s table late Monday morning is dominated by two simple words — “Grammar” and “Table” — but it doesn’t exactly explain why a Manhattan resident ended up clear across the country.

Jovin isn’t selling anything.

And although she’s passionate, she’s no proselytizer.

Mainly Jovin just wants to meet people, to share with them a few minutes and, ideally, a few laughs.

If these chance encounters also allow her to indulge in her enthusiasm for language, and in the process help one of her newfound friends bypass some pratfall of punctuation, so much the better.

Jovin’s journey started almost a year ago, on Sept. 21, 2018, also on a sidewalk.

This one was in front of her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Jovin, who earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from UCLA and started a language-learning website called Words & Worlds of New York, wanted a way to discuss her favorite topic — language and how we use it — in a forum more personal than the internet.

She was also tired of the nastiness that online anonymity can nurture.

“I want people to take joy in language and not use it as a weapon to hurt people with,” Jovin said Monday as she sat on the east side of Main, in front of the Geiser Grand Hotel.

So on that day last September she set up a folding table in front of her apartment, taped on the “Grammar Table” sign, sat back and waited.

She didn’t wait long.

(About 1.7 million people live in Manhattan, after all.)

Within 30 seconds someone stopped to chat.

“Pretty quickly it became apparent to me that it can be an anchor for community building,” she said of the Grammar Table experiment.

Since then Jovin has put up her table in many places in New York City.

And in late July she embarked on a national tour with her husband, Brandt Johnson, who is making a documentary tentatively titled “Grammar Table: The Movie.”

Jovin also is writing a book about her adventures for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She hopes it will be published in 2021.

Over the past month Jovin has visited Buffalo, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Fargo and Spokane, among other cities.

She picked Baker City, which is considerably smaller than those cities, on not quite a whim.

Jovin, who grew up in Los Angeles, said she wanted to stop in at least one town in Oregon.

But she had already visited Portland — this was long before Grammar Table — so she pondered other places.

“I looked (Baker City) up and it looked like a cool town,” Jovin said.

It exceeded her expectations.

“I’m so happy we came here,” she said. “There are lots of really beautiful buildings here. And now it’s not just a dot on the map. It’s a place I know something about.”

A trifle more, perhaps, than she expected.

Jovin initially set up her table Sunday evening on the east side of Main near Court Avenue, and in 90 minutes or so she met several local residents and a handful of visitors from, among other places, Canada, Texas and California.

And although the conversations delved into grammatical matters, that was, Jovin said, just “a place to start.”

“I learned about someone’s medical history, and how a couple met and fell in love,” she said.

Jovin said that mixture of personal anecdote and discussion of grammar and language has been typical during her hours sitting behind the Grammar Table.

“It’s very broadly human,” she said.

And quite often amusing.

“I cracked up about 30 times doing the course of the conversation,” Jovin said of her brief time in Baker City Sunday evening.

She also watched a covey of quail, complete with cute chicks, scamper past.

A common sight in Baker City, but not so in New York City.

“To me that was a big deal,” Jovin said.

It was also a chance to indulge in her favorite topic.

Jovin said the wildlife encounter prompted her to tweet about the plural of quail.

(As with elk and deer, the plural version is the same as the singular.)

Jovin said she’d like to take Grammar Table to every state, but she admits that’s probably an overly ambitious goal.

In the meantime she’s eager to continue seeing new towns and meeting new people.

And although she treasures the personal stories that sometimes result, Jovin said she’s especially excited when someone simply walks up and, without even making an introduction, launches into a question or comment about grammar or language.

“As if this,” she says, gesturing to her table stacked with grammar guides, “is a natural thing to find on a sidewalk.”


Jayson has worked at the Baker City Herald since November 1992, starting as a reporter. He has been editor since December 2007. He graduated from the University of Oregon Journalism School in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in news-editorial journalism.

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