Grammar matters
Grammar matters

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Grammar matters

1.3 Functional grammar and its uses

Another way of understanding the importance of grammatical choice is to see it in terms of how language is functioning in any given text or interaction. For example, depending on the choices made in the courtroom case in Activity 3, language can function to intimidate and exercise power over a witness (or to reassure and empower them) as well as seeking information. This emphasis on function rather than form gives rise to the terms functional grammar and Systemic Functional Linguistics (known as SFL for short). A functional perspective holds that language looks the way it does because of the functions it fulfils, in other words, how we use it to make meaning. This perspective focuses on how forms perform a range of meaning functions, rather than on form in itself. The next activity explains further what this approach can offer.

Activity 5: The value of a functional perspective on grammar

Timing: 15 minutes

In this activity you will listen to two brief extracts from an interview with the late Geoff Thompson, another well-known educator and researcher in the field of SFL. He is widely known and recognised for his work on functional grammar, and is author of the book Introducing Functional Grammar (Thompson, 2014).

Figure 5 Geoff Thompson

As you listen, consider the associated questions.

1. What is formal grammar? What is functional grammar? How do they differ?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Geoff Thompson interview (1)
Skip transcript: Geoff Thompson interview (1)

Transcript: Geoff Thompson interview (1)

I’m Geoff Thompson. I was a senior lecturer at Liverpool University until I retired. The move from formal to functional grammar I think is a move from the kind of grammar that people often know about – often, not very confidently; but they’ve heard about it at school or texts about language.
Things like being able to identify nouns and verbs and knowing what they are. That’s more at the formal end of the spectrum where you’re really just trying to break up a sentence into its parts. When you move towards functional, you’re thinking about what are these bits of the sentence doing and what is the sentence as a whole doing.
Why has the speaker or writer expressed it in this way? What else could they have said? Why didn’t they say it that way? Why was it that this seemed to be the most effective way of expressing what they want to express.
End transcript: Geoff Thompson interview (1)
Geoff Thompson interview (1)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

2. In which other professional areas, apart from education, does Geoff suggest an increased knowledge of grammar might be put to use?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Geoff Thompson interview (2)
Skip transcript: Geoff Thompson interview (2)

Transcript: Geoff Thompson interview (2)

Grammar is relevant not only in educational contexts but in a number of other contexts, or perhaps, rather than grammar, an understanding of how language works, more generally. I don’t think you need to use grammatical terminology to analyse texts in the way that a linguist would recognise, but, for example, advertisers – advertisement writers – are typically highly skilled users of language. And part of their training will be to learn how to manipulate language to make it as persuasive as possible in the kind of context they’re working in.
It’s become increasingly recognised, for example, in training of doctors that they need to be trained how to interact with patients. That it’s no good just having the knowledge – they need to do other things in patient consultations. And a knowledge of language – a knowledge of how you can interact in different ways with language – is of great value.
There’s also very kind of applied areas like translation: a good translator clearly needs to know how both languages work. Forensic linguistics is an area that’s become very popular, very important. The ability to analyse language to show who might have produced it, for example.
There’s been some very interesting work on confessions – supposed confessions – showing that they are almost certainly made up by police, or whoever, after the event rather than, as was claimed in court, a record of what was said by the accused.
End transcript: Geoff Thompson interview (2)
Geoff Thompson interview (2)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


  1. To Geoff, formal grammar is the type of grammar that some people know about from school, which is often to do with being able to identity nouns and verbs, and breaking up a sentence into its parts. Functional grammar, by contrast, Geoff sees as having to do with understanding not just the constituent parts of the sentence but also what the sentence as a whole is doing.
  2. Geoff mentions the importance for advertisers, doctors and translators, among others, of increasing their understanding, not only of sentence-level grammar but also of meaning making through language as a whole. Advertisers, for instance, are able to manipulate language and persuade customers that they need a given product; doctors need not only to have medical knowledge but also to interact effectively and empathetically with the patients they are diagnosing; translators need to have an understanding of how different languages function in order to be able to translate between them. Geoff also relates how forensic linguists have used their linguistic knowledge to show how some historic alleged confessions from crime suspects were almost certainly tampered with by the police.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371