Life, Death, and Grammar

Grammar is the creator of the energy a text exudes.

It is often said that a picture paints a thousand words. A few words though, can paint a thousand pictures. It is topic often regarded as the epitome of boredom, especially at school. Despite our feelings towards it, we begin to learn it even before we are born. 
Let’s Eat Grandma on Grammar Structure Style Readability
(Image by Gregor Wills)
Our parents speak to us whilst we are in our embryonic phase. As we grow older, we develop the ability to form new and complex sentences in our efforts to communicate. Messages, such as e-mails, can be read and acted upon without the sender being even remotely close to the recipient, if the author follows the basic grammatical rules accepted by the language speakers. It is this complex form of communication that separates humans from other animal forms. But how important is the study of grammar to help improve communication? 

‘Grammar differs from structure, style, and readability in that only grammar can be described as correct or incorrect, right or wrong’ (Royal, 2004, p.101) In order to formulate sentences that convey messages in an unambiguous manner, the correct methodology must be obeyed. Knowing how to juxtapose words in an effective manner calls for good writing skills, which are enhanced by the correct application of grammar. Some speakers and writers employ the language in a dynamic way, whilst others in a passive way. For example, a political candidate is more likely to use dynamic (or active), and arousing language compared to a short romantic storywriter. Let us look at the example of the political candidate. In order to create an image of unity, the first person plural pronoun may be used frequently. For example, ‘We will achieve […]’ implies that we shall all work together as a team; we are in this together. On the other hand, if the candidate wishes to portray the image of a public servant to the electorate he or she might employ the first and second pronoun. ‘I will work for you’ is a sentence construction that puts the speaker in the labour of the voters. If the active voice is so emotive, why would anyone use passive sentences?

An academic paper will most likely be written in a third person passive voice. ‘Passives without an agent [actor] are common in academic and scientific writing […]’ (Swan, 2005, p.387). This article for example is written in the third person passive voice. This ensures that the message remains impartial. The facts are presented and the reader is allowed to have a dialogue with the text before making his or her mind up. In other words, in an academic-style passive voice text neither the author nor the reader are actors. They are both disinterested witnesses who examine the evidence available. It also ensures that the writer remains objective and balanced in his or her views rather than compile an emotive discussion. The third person is also used by writers of fiction, where an omnipresent view is required. This allows the reader to follow the plot as a witness to the unfolding events from many different angles. But what does all this have to do with grammar?

The fact is that without the use of accepted grammatical structures a message would lack clarity. ‘A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing’ (Strunk & White, 2000, p.15). In other words, if the grammatical rules are not followed comprehensible communication will not exist. Even people who have not studied the language follow the basic language rules. For example, the term question tag may not be understood by all, yet it is often employed even by speakers unaware of its existence - ‘nice weather, innit?’ Here the sentence structure follows the rule of the question tag subject referring back to the subject of its preceding clause (Biber, Conrad, et al 2012). The subject of the first clause is the weather. The subject of the second clause is it (innit, in its non-contracted form is not it); it referring to the weather. Upon further examining of this transaction, we can deduce from the word ellipsis at the beginning of the sentence that the parties involved are familiar with each other. The language used is very informal with the question tag shortened to the colloquial innit from isn’t it. However colloquial the conversation might be, the basic grammatical structure, as universally accepted by English speakers, was retained. If this can be achieved without studying the language structure, why does grammar need to be examined?

Modern leaders prefer to resolve issues by discussion rather than by hostilities. They examine different option and formulate arguments to win the point across. Rhetoric without structure may have very little impact. Moreover, an understanding of how language works ensures that the message is not lost in translation. Dexterity in the use grammar ensures that the appropriate communication etiquette is maintained; one that matches the context in which the language is employed. It also helps with the analysis of how English operates in a variety of contexts. Most people are adept at using language that is appropriate to the environment in which they are communicating, and the message they wish to put across. Nevertheless, a closer examination of the language will help present it in a more structured and persuasive light, even when writing in the passive voice.

In conclusion, it is complex communication that helps humans exchange intricate message, even from a long distance away. Language, through the use of different sentence construction, may be presented dynamically or passively. The examination of how grammar affects the messages that are communicated raises the awareness of language usage. This ensures that our verbal and written transactions are powerful and appropriate to the environment of the exchange. If proper communication may end wars, then grammar is a matter of life and death.


The Open University offers a level 3 module on grammar. The E303 English Grammar in Context can be accessed online -

There is also an Open University taster to the E303 English Grammar in Context module that can be accessed online  -


Biber, D, Conrad, S, & Leech, G., (2012), Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Longman, Harlow. (This is a set book for the OU E303 English Grammar in Context module).

Royal, B., (2004) The Little Red Writing Book, Writers Digest Books, Ohio.

Strunk Jr., W, White, E. B., (2000), The Elements of Style, (4th Ed.), Longman, Massachusetts.

Swan, M., (2005), Practical English Usage, (3rd Ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Wills, G., Let’s Eat Grandma, Image [Online]: [Accessed 20 August 2013].


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