Topic: Grammar and meaning

These resources consider how grammar is important in expressing certain types of meaning.

Writing with tense and aspect: Activity 2

Here is the outline sequence of events (don’t forget that you can add more):

Active or passive voice?

Are the following constructions active or passive?

Agents or non-agents?

In each of these examples the Subject is highlighted. For each one, decide whether or not the Subject identifies an agent (or more than one agent) who carries out an action.

Aspect and tense

Look at the highlighted verb phrase in each example, then decide which category of tense and aspect to place it in.

Perfect or progressive aspect?

Decide whether the highlighted verb phrase is perfect aspect or progressive aspect?

Scope of the conjunction

Which of the two structures do you think the speaker intended?

Y6 GPaS Test: Active or passive?

Indicate whether each example is active or passive:

Y6 GPaS Test: Identify the modal verb

Identify the modal verbs in each of the following examples. Click on the word (or words) to select or deselect them.

Y6 GPaS Test: Modal verbs, adverb phrases, and uncertainty

In each of the following examples, indicate whether uncertainty is expressed using a modal verb or an adverb phrase:

Y6 GPaS Test: Preposition phrases, adverb phrases, and time

In each of the following examples, indicate whether time is expressed using a preposition phrase or an adverb phrase:

Y6 GPaS Test: Present or past tense?

In each of the following examples, indicate whether the highlighted verb is in present or past tense:

Y6 GPaS Test: Question, command, or statement

Indicate whether each sentence is a question, command, or statement:

Active and passive

Consider the two sentences below. What is the difference between them?

  1. The council workers cleared the path.
  2. The path was cleared by the council workers.

The same event is taking place in both sentences, but the sentences have been expressed in different ways.

In the first example the focus is on what the council workers did (they cleared the path), whereas in the second example, the focus is on what happened to the path (it was cleared by the council workers).

Active and passive: Creating cohesion

When does a writer or speaker choose to use a passive rather than an active? There can be various reasons. We’ll look here at the effects of using passives in different contexts.

Consider sentence (1). Would it be more natural to follow it with (2) or (3)? Why?

Active and passive: Style and use

In some genres of writing – science reports, for example – the passive voice is encouraged. However, many advocates of ‘plain English’ argue that the passive voice can be confusing to readers, and obscures meaning.

The examples below are from articles on the natural sciences, taken from the ICE-GB corpus. They illustrate the use of the passive voice (verb phrases in the passive are highlighted):

Adverbial: Used as linking device

Adverbials typically modify verbs or clauses, but they can also be useful as linking devices to connect clauses to the content of the preceding text. Here are some examples of Adverbials that have this function. Remember that Adverbials can appear in different shapes: as adverbs (or adverb phrases), as prepositional phrases, as (shortened) clauses, or as set phrases.



Cohesion refers to the grammatical relationships that exist within a text between words, phrases, etc. When we talk only of the semantic links, i.e. the meaning links, we speak of coherence.

Here we focus on cohesion. However, before we do so, consider the following passage:

The sun is shining. Who is your neighbour? I left the washing in the machine. Without doubt she will succeed.

Conjunctions: Conjunctions and ambiguity

Look at this sentence:

  • Can I have cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch?

Do you think the speaker wants sandwiches filled with cheese and tomato or some cheese, and sandwiches with a tomato filling?

Native speakers probably know what cheese and tomato sandwiches are, but they don't realise that the phrase is actually ambiguous (has more than one meaning).

Expressing time

Grammar is important for expressing information about time. It helps us to locate situations in the past, present or future, and to describe how situations unfold over time.

This is typically done by using different forms of the verb. For example:


When we talk (or write), we often make statements of fact about the world: It's hot today; I'm hungry; Tomorrow is my birthday. However, this is not always the case.

We often talk about what is possible or necessary: for example, what might happen or what somebody must do. This kind of meaning is called modality.

Preposing and postposing

As writers and speakers there are many ways in which we can present information to readers or hearers by using different word orders and sentence patterns to highlight different aspects of meaning. This is often referred to as information structuring.

There are many ways we can highlight information. Here we will look at two important ones:


We all use different forms of language in different situations. At the most extreme, you’ll probably know that in casual conversation with friends you will use very different language from that which you’d use at a job interview.

The kinds of differences will relate to vocabulary (the word choices you make) but also to grammar (the structures, the complexity, the patterns of words).

Semantic roles

When we talk about grammar, we mostly discuss language from the point of view of its internal characteristics.

We can say that steered in the following example has a grammatical form, namely verb. More specificallty, we say that it is a verb in the past tense.


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