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Concourse 2

Form, function, meaning

form and function

To understand a little about this area, it's necessary to distinguish between two basic forms of language analysis:

  1. formal theories of language
  2. functional theories of language

Can you make a stab at the difference?

The moral is that our learners need both types of information: formal, linguistic competence to make structurally correct language and communicative competence to use the language appropriately.
Ideally, lessons should combine both approaches so that learners are confident that they are getting the language right and able to see what communicative ends the language serves.


One form, many functions

If you have done some of the other parts of the Language Analysis and Awareness section, you will be familiar with the idea that one form may have a number of functions.
Here are some examples.

This language ... ... could mean
He is writing a book He is writing a book right this minute
He is writing a book at the present time but may not be actually writing now
He has arranged to write a book in the future
He should be there He is obliged to be there
I deduce that he is there
He is advised to be there
It's cold in here Please shut the window
Please turn on the heating
This is the reason I'm getting my coat
The bank is over there That's where you can get some money
That's where you can go fishing
convict A noun: convict: a person in prison
A verb: convict: to find someone guilty)

You can see from these examples that one form can have more than one meaning.  The form can be:

  • grammatical (a tense such as the present progressive)
  • structural (the functions of the modal should)
  • pragmatic (the intended meaning behind saying It's cold in here)
  • semantic (the meaning of bank)
  • phonemic (the pronunciation of convict)



If this is true, how on earth do people ever understand each other? Well, how do they? Think for a minute and then see the answer.

How many functions are there?

Lots.  However, it's quite easy to find lists which include items such as giving / getting permission, asking for and giving factual information, apologising and accepting apologies, expressing hopes and wishes and so on.
Two key publications are from the Council of Europe and are available on the web:
Waystage 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Threshold 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Waystage contains a long list of functions and notions for lower levels and Threshold does the same for more advanced learners.  Warning: these are large files.
If you want a manageable list of 68 basic functions, there is one in the introduction to functions.

Adjacency pairs

Functions often come in pairs, because one function often requires its counterpart(s).  For example, asking for someone's name is a useful function to control but less so if you don't know how to respond by introducing yourself.  Here are some more:

apologising accepting or rejecting apologies
asking for permission granting or denying permission
asking directions giving directions
expressing anger placating

and, of course, it makes sense to teach and practise them together.  There's not much point in being able to ask for permission 3 different ways if you are unlikely to understand the response.

one and many

One function, many forms

The other side of the coin is that we can use a number of forms to 'realise' the same function.  If I want to advise you, I can say, You should, You ought to, Do you think it wouldn't be a good idea to ... etc.
Here's another set of examples.

This function ... ... could be achieved by ...
I want to tell you what he is doing sometimes but not now He is writing a book
He is engaged in writing a book
He works on his book most mornings
I want to tell you what I've deduced He should be there
He must have arrived
I'm sure he's got there by now
I want you to close the window Please shut the window
It's cold in here
Do you think we could have the window shut?
I want to direct you to the bank The bank is over there
There's the bank
It's over the road
He's in prison He's a convict
He was convicted
He's been banged up
He was given a custodial sentence


Choosing the form

If this is true, how on earth do we choose the right form to realise the function?  Well, how do we?  Think for a minute and then see the answer.

Think what these might be.  Try to find an implication for each of the four factors and then compare your list.

Take the test.

Van Ek, J and Trim, J, Waystage 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Van Ek, J and Trim, J, Threshold 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Widdowson, H (1990), Aspects of Language teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press