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Concourse 2

Function words

function words

10 classes of words are usually recognised in English.  These are sometimes called 'parts of speech'.
Of these, some are 'open-class items' and some are called 'closed system items'.  If you don't know the difference, go to the guide to word class and look through that.  Then shut that to come back to this page.


two

Two sorts of words

Take a look at this sentence:

  1. The glumpy finkleblender in the dwoodledam bongled bederously and flummbered all my quitchicants.

In this sentence some of the words have been replaced by nonsense.
What's important here is that we can make a stab at the meaning of the sentence like this:

The glumpy finkleblender We can guess that glumpy is an adjective describing the noun finkleblender because of the analogy with other adjectives (such as wonky, shaky, slippery, happy etc.).
We can also guess that the finkleblender is something or someone that performs an action by analogy with blender, gardener, writer, mixer and so on (it may even blend finkles).  Because the phrase is introduced by the definite article (the) we can compare it to something like The swanky juice-maker or The wonky lawnmower.
in the dwoodledam This is obviously a place and a noun because
a) something can be in it and
b) it is preceded by the definite article.
bongled bederously We can guess the verb is bongle and it has a regular past tense.  We can also surmise that bederously is an adverb from the adjective bederous because it follows the verb and ends in -ly.
and flummbered all my quitchicants Again, flummber is probably a regular verb which takes an object and quitchicants is a plural noun following all my.
We also know that the quitchicants have been flummbered by a finkleblender, by the way.

Easy.  Now try it with the second sentence:

  1. Fleeb machine infuriated gruttle bibgle hoblem extent gringle jid threw jadd fotig immediately.

Hmm.  Not so easy.  We can understand that the sentence is probably about a machine and anger but that's about all because we can't see the relationships that the words have with each other.

What made sentence 2 more difficult to understand than sentence 1?  Click here when you have some sort of answer.


match

Function words

Function words are words which are only meaningful when they are in company with other words.
For example.  If you say house to people who speak English, they will know what you mean but if you say at, they are unlikely to have a clue what you mean.
(By the way, this site uses the term 'Function words' but you may see the same concept called grammatical words or structure words or even synsemantic words.)

Function words are all closed system items.  They are closed in the sense that we do not often add new function words to a language in the way that we can add new content words for new items and ideas.

Which of the following word classes are function words and which are content words?

nouns | demonstratives | verbs | conjunctions | prepositions | adverbs | articles | pronouns | adjectives | interjections

Click here when you have an answer.

There are some things to note:

  1. Some verbs are considered function words.
    These include modal verbs such as can, might, should etc. which only carry meaning combined with a content-word verb such as decide.  Standing alone, could has no obvious meaning but combined with imagine, for example, it does.
  2. Some other verbs are similar.  These include be, get, do and have.  These are only function words when they act to form part of a tense or other structure.  They are, in fact, primary auxiliary verbs.  For example,
        I have a house in Miami – the verb have is not operating as a function word here because it has meaning – i.e., own.
        I have been gardening – here, both have and been are function words because they are making a tense structure, not carrying meaning apart from a grammatical one.
        Do you want a drink? – here do is a function word which English uses to make a question form in some tenses.
        I'll do the work – here do is not a function word because it carries lexical meaning – i.e., perform.
  3. There are some other words (sometimes called particles) which show the attitude of the speaker rather than carrying meaning per se.  Words such as Well, ..., if, but etc. do not always act as conjunctions joining clauses but can simply signal attitude.
  4. Interjections such as ouch! certainly do carry meaning but they are considered function words because you can't actually define the meaning and it may shift depending on circumstances.  That word could mean, for example:
        She's singing off key
    or
        I have hurt myself
    .
  5. Words like no, right, yes, maybe are also considered function words for similar reasons.  These are sometimes called pro-sentences because they can act as whole utterances in themselves.

The General Service Word list

The General Service List (GSL) is a list of roughly 2000 words published by Michael West in 1953.  The words were selected to represent the most frequent words of English and were taken from a corpus of written English.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Service_List)

Note the date: 1953.  Of course, the list has been updated since then (go to the Wikipedia article for links to updated lists) but the list of function words remains serviceable simply because these are closed system items.  The original General Service List did not contain some nouns and verbs (such as computer and click) which are now frequent over 60 years later because times change.  Function words don't.


list

The list of function words

Conjunctions Determiners Prepositions Pronouns
after
although
and
as
because
before
both
but
either
for
however
if
neither
nor
once
or
since
so
than
that
therefore
though
thus
till
unless
until
when
whenever
where
wherever
whether
while
yet
a
all
another
any
both
each
either
every
neither
no
other
per
some
that
the
these
this
those
whatever
whichever
about
above
across
after
against
ahead
along
among
amongst
around
as
at
bar
before
behind
below
beneath
beside
besides
between
beyond
but
by
down
during
except
for
from
in
inside
into
less
like
near
of
off
on
onto
opposite
outside
over
past
per
round
save
since
through
till
to
toward
under
underneath
until
up
upon
with
within
without
all
another
any
anybody
anyone
anything
both
each
either
everybody
everyone
everything
few
he
I
it
many
mine
neither
nobody
none
nothing
one
other
several
she
some
somebody
someone
something
that
these
they
this
those
we
what
whatever
which
whichever
who
whoever
whom
whose
you
This list is available as a PDF document.

In this list, articles count as determiners and so do demonstratives.
No attempt has been made to list interjections or pro-sentences.

Alert people will have noticed that some words appear in more than one column.  That's because they can function as different word classes in different environments.
Examples:

And so on.

There's no proper test on this but to check you understand, identify the function words and what sort of functions they are performing in this sentence.
When you have done that, click here.

Can you tell me the difference between content words and function words?


classroom

Classroom implications

This section does not consider teaching approaches to function words.  There are none.  The range of types and functions means that lessons, or a series of lessons, can only sensibly be focused on small subgroups of function words such as:

  1. Don't be tempted to think that because function words are so familiar to you that they will be easy for learners to understand and use.  All languages have ways of making relationships between content words clear and to do that they deploy all kinds of different functions but not necessarily function words as such.  Some languages will do it by adding suffixes to the ends of words, some by using different sorts of markers in sentences and so on.
    Even in languages which are similar to English (i.e., most European ones) the variations are enormous and complicated.
    This means that you will need explicitly to focus on what function words are doing in sentences and how they work.
  2. Translation is fraught with problems.  It is relatively simple to translate many content words from one language to another (although where word meanings stop and start is an issue as are collocation, countability and connotation etc.).  So, for example, book is variously, Buch, boek, كتاب, libro, leabhar, βιβλίο, könyv, livre etc.
    This does not work with any but the simplest function words.
    Even something as simple as the idea of either ... or provides problems with many languages rendering it as something like or ... or (ose ose, vagy vagy, jew jew, ou ou etc.).  Other languages have a single word to stand for the concept and some use three words.  Don't assume for a second that any of the words for either in other languages can change into determiners as the word can in English.
  3. Don't rely on explanation.  Because of the variations in how people's first languages function grammatically (and function words are grammatical) learners need to see the words in action, understand the concepts they represent and deploy them to make their own meanings.  That means teaching.
  4. Keep the focus.  The lists above contain four different sorts of function words.  It makes sense to focus on a few of one sort only at a time.
  5. Even within the groups, there are conceptual subgroups.  For example, within the determiners lie the articles and the English article system is itself complex and difficult to understand.  The same goes for the other groups.  Prepositions, in particular, are virtually non-translatable across languages and a source of persistent error and confusion.
  6. Take opportunities to focus on function words which come up when you are doing something else.  They are so important that you should miss no chance to help your learners understand them and use them successfully.


Related guide
primary auxiliary verbs for a guide to be, have, do and get as function words
word class for the essential guide to word class
semantics for an overview of the meaning of mean
PDF document for the list of function words in English


Try a short test to see if you can identify what sort of function words are in some sentences.