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Grammar matters
Grammar matters

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1.2 Meaning and consequences

The next activity asks you to look at a much more serious example of how grammar as a carrier of meaning can have serious consequences in the real world.

Activity 3: Grammar in the court room

Timing: 15 minutes 
Described image
Figure 4 A traditional formal courtroom

Imagine you are observing a trial involving a child witness. A barrister is cross-examining the child. Consider these two alternative forms of questioning and use the blank text box to note answers the questions below.

Did you hit him first?

You hit him first, didn’t you?

  1. What differences in grammatical form do you notice between the two examples? (Don’t worry if you are not familiar with grammatical terminology, just note any differences in your own words.)
  2. What sort of response does each question call for?
  3. What potential problems can you foresee in the second example?
  4. Which do you think you are most likely to hear in a courtroom?
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  1. The first is a question or interrogative sentence. In the second sentence, the main clause of the sentence is an assertion, or declarative clause, followed by the question tag didn’t you?
  2. These utterances call for slightly different sorts of response. The first calls simply for an answer to the question, without proposing what that answer should be. The second makes a proposition and invites the other person to challenge the proposition.
  3. The second version potentially ‘leads’ the witness, who has to actively reject the barrister’s assertion if they wish to deny being the first to hit out. In the context of the courtroom the experienced adult barrister is in a very powerful position in relation to a young child in the witness box for the first time. By choosing this assertive wording in cross-examination, a barrister enacts their authority over the child and consequently there is a risk that the child will falsely agree to a proposition because they feel unable to challenge the ‘voice of authority’. This increases the risk of miscarriages of justice in such cases.
  4. It is difficult to be sure which question is most likely in a courtroom, and this will differ from one legal jurisdiction and culture to another. However, eminent members of the legal profession have argued that there is too much of the second type of wording in courtroom language where vulnerable witnesses are being cross-examined.

This example illustrates how different grammatical choices can have serious consequences. In 2013, Lord Judge, retired Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, called for a major overhaul of the way in which children were cross-examined in court. In a BBC interview, he expressed profound concern for the 40,000 children a year who are called to give evidence in England and Wales in criminal proceedings, criticising the current system in strong terms (Today, 2013). One of the main reasons for Lord Judge’s objections hinged on the language that barristers acting for the defence were using to cross-examine child witnesses. In the example above, which was given by Lord Judge himself, the meaning of the declarative + negative question tag may be only subtly different to that of an interrogative clause. However, the difference is highly significant in terms of the social relationships in the exchange.

Activity 4: Grammar: form or function?

Timing: 10 minutes

Think back to how you learned grammar at school, either in English or other languages you learned. What terms do you remember learning?


Everyone will have their own recollections of grammar at school – not all of them positive! You may have made a note of learning such terms as noun, verb, pronoun, adverb and adjective. In some cases, you may have learned about past, present and future tense verbs. In some languages you may have learned about how to ensure agreement between verbs and nouns or pronouns, for example if they need to be plural or singular forms. In other languages you may have learned about word gender, i.e. whether a word is masculine, feminine or neuter, for example. Many of us would also have recollections of grammar as being about writing in complete sentences, using punctuation correctly, and so on. All of these terms are linked to an understanding of grammar as a question of form and structure rather than of function.