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In a chaotic world, good grammar can be the consistency we need


Brian Taylor talks a big game. Calling AFL for Channel 7, Taylor brings all the bluster of a throwback wrestler. Any hint of biff quickens his pulse with an oh-boy rapture, while his flair for onomatopoeia puts Batman in the shade: “Puopolo gives the double don’t-argue, bang-bang!” Or: “Look at the crowd, going naa-naa!”

Excuse the exclamation marks. All BT utterances come pre-loaded. Meanwhile, if you seek a speedy drinking game, then skol every time he says “opportunity”. Oblivion will be yours by quarter-time.

For Sandra Volk, however, the beef with Taylor was less his ballyhoo than a noisome phrase. Quoting Sandra: “My partner Greg, a Richmond fan, is irritated by Taylor’s declaration that Richmond is “within five points of” Carlton, say. Is that linguistically correct?”

Grammar bugbears have dominated my mailbag.

Grammar bugbears have dominated my mailbag.Credit:Jo Gay

The glitch is the preposition. Imagine the Tigers trail the Blues by four points, then a commentator could claim Richmond are within six points, as much as they are within 66 points. As a term of range, rather than exactitude, “within” allows for leeway. Unlike a tailor, who deals in vital statistics, this Taylor seems happier with blunt scissors.

Grammar bugbears, in fact, have dominated my mailbag. Jackie, another reader, wished me to resolve a family schism, triggered by the phrase: “It’s all about practise and perseverance.” Should that be practice with a c or s? Both options seemed defensible – the verb or noun. Which was it?

Noun, I voted, in sync with perseverance. Put the ice in practice, I urged. Editors talk about concord, where verbs click in their tense, or pronouns chime with their antecedents. Civil war may well erupt in Jackie’s home, as either form of practice could do, but I’m hoping to end the iciness in the name of agreement.

Grammatical agreement, the sort explored in Caroline Taggart’s punctuation handbook Help A Thief! (Michael O’Mara Books, 2021). Before commas arrived, chaos reigned full-stop. Ancient texts resembled overblown football commentary, barely a breath in sight. Back then, manslaughter was either bloody, or bloody funny. Thus we owe a debt to Aristophanes of Byzantium, the alphabetic engineer, for introducing pause marks in 200BC.

Dotted strings, admittedly, but his interventions were ground-breaking, spawning today’s modern squiggles, from hyphen to bracket. Punctuation, after all, is there to make texts easier to read, just as grammar serves the greater god of clarity, a virtual honing of the scissors.



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