‘Word nerd’ sets up grammar table on Delmar; she's not there to criticize or scold

ST. LOUIS — A self-described “word nerd,” Ellen Jovin first set up Grammar Table a year ago near her home in New York City as an unusual form of street performance.

Now she’s taking her table on the road to talk grammar, spelling, punctuation and pronunciation with anyone confused by the difference between lay and lie — so, pretty much everyone.

Grammar Table is “a celebration of language,” Jovin said Tuesday on the Delmar Loop while waiting for passersby to ask a question or file a complaint. She’s not there to criticize or scold, because “grammar should not be used as a weapon to make people feel bad.”

Jovin, 53, is a polyglot, or multiple language learner, with degrees in German from Harvard and comparative literature from UCLA. She has studied more than 20 languages from Arabic to Yiddish, just for fun.

When visitors complain about a perceived neglect of grammar rules among young people, Jovin said she is optimistic about future generations.

“Yes, they may pay less attention to punctuation on social media, but they are attentive to their audience, which is essential for good writing,” Jovin said.

Jovin is from California, and her husband, Brandt Johnson, 53, is from Connecticut. Together they run Syntaxis, a communications consulting company. Johnson is filming their road trip for an upcoming documentary, with Missouri marking their 26th state in the quest to hit all 50.

Their geographic backgrounds have led to discussions about regional differences in speech. She thinks the names “Don” and “Dawn” should sound the same; he pronounces them slightly differently. Same goes for “tock” and “talk.” The phenomenon is known as the “cot/caught merger” that splits the country down the middle. Most people in the west have merged the vowel sounds, while those to the east, including St. Louis, have resisted the merger.

Tourists Vicky and Michael Born, from Columbus, and April and Paul Craven, from Arkansas, stopped by the table to ponder punctuation like the preferred number of spaces after a period, capitalization for emphasis, and the Oxford comma.

“We are all very curious individuals,” said Vicky Born. “We will explore things we didn’t have an interest in.”

One former copy editor for Elsevier Publishing told Jovin she has an uphill battle trying to inspire new grammarians.

“It’s a dead art,” said the man, who declined to give his name (probably out of fear it would be misspelled). He added that his language pet peeves are the misuse of “which” and “that” and newscasters who say “a” art museum instead of “an.”

Melissa Grannum, 54, of Ladue, came by to say she’s a proud member of the “grammar police,” even around her family from Jamaica who speak in a dialect. Grannum’s biggest complaint is a mispronunciation of the word “ask” as “ax.”

That led to a discussion with Jovin about George W. Bush’s pronunciation of the word “nuclear” as “nu-cue-ler.” The former president was teased over the word, but the pronunciation falls under common usage, according to Jovin’s dictionary.

“There are always surprises,” she said, “especially with English.”