John McIntyre

To Infinitive and Beyond: A Grammar Day Dialogue | COMMENTARY

My day was as empty as a human resources manager’s imagination, so I was heading for a pint or two of Smithwick’s with my barfly associates, the Afternoon Travelers, when an anomaly loomed on the landscape.

There, at the edge of the sidewalk, sat a woman behind a table identified by a large sign as the GRAMMAR TABLE. What her scam was, or which marks she was spreading bait to lure, didn’t seem clear, so I stepped up and spoke:


“How fares our English tongue? Is it strong? Is it steady?”

She gave me the look your editor gives your first draft at ten minutes to deadline. “Does that mean you have an interest in grammar?” she asked.


“Sister, I worked with professional journalists for forty years, and I’ve seen it all, all there is to see, non-Euclidean syntax that would give Bryan Garner the whim-whams. What I want to know is what’s in it for you?”

“I’m Ellen Jovin. I travel setting up this Grammar Table in different cities and inviting people to talk about things in grammar that interest or concern them.”

“Great Fowler’s ghost, sunshine, you talk to civilians about grammar?”

“In forty-seven states. Without the pandemic, I could have hit fifty.”

“And what do these citizens itch to talk to you about?”

“Nearly everything. “Whether you say ‘a historic’ or ‘an historic.’ How to pronounce ‘diaeresis.’ "

“They can’t spell it, and they don’t use it, so it doesn’t matter how they pronounce it.”

“I’m on Twitter too, @GrammarTable, and there I can do polls.”



Then she adopted the pitying gaze of your supervisor at the annual performance review. “Polls. I raise a point of grammar or usage and let them choose from a set of responses.”

“What do you shake out of them?”

“Well, they seem to have trouble making plurals and possessives with nouns—particularly names—ending in ‘s,’ and, of course, commas.”

“Do they squabble? Most of the online gabble I see is like 10 reporters fighting over nine doughnuts.”

“I asked them once what they cared the most about, toilet paper—the Over or Under schools—or the Oxford comma.”


“Spill it, sister.”

“It came out 31% toilet paper, 38% Oxford comma, and 23% tied.”

“The Oxford comma. There’s a molehill to die on.”

“Hey, in Salt Lake City, I was informed that Jesus is more than grammar. I didn’t dispute it.”

“Ace, let me come back to the what’s in it for you.”

“Oh, I’m writing a book about my Grammar Table travels, Rebel with a Clause.


“Always an angle.”

“It was interesting to talk to all those people and hear all the different things they think about English grammar.”

“Of course they think different things. We’re Americans. We can’t agree on anything.”


“Well, we might agree that it’s a fine day for drinking. Fancy a pint?”

“You drink this early in the day?”


“You must not be an editor. Could you go for a cup of coffee?

“Like a copy editor offered a buyout package.”