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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?  Click here for an answer.

Examples may help.
In everyday life, away from the analysis of language, we are actually more interested in the function of things than the labels we put on them.  For example, when faced with something that looks like this:
we would normally ask something like
    Where does that door lead?
rather than
    What's that?
when we hope for an answer such as
    To the garden
In fact, the question What's that? when referring to a door is likely to raise an eyebrow.
In this case, asking
    What's that?
would probably elicit:
    What do you think it is?

On the other hand, when faced with:
then the question:
    What's that?
is more legitimate and the answer you are likely to get is more informative.  It might be something like:
    I'm not sure.  It looks like an early printing press or something.

In the classroom, especially with learners at lower levels, teachers can often be trapped into asking questions such as:
    What's this?
expecting an answer:
    It's a pencil
which is, of course, not an example of real communication at all because, unless one is talking to quite unusual people, it is clear to everyone what the thing in question is and all the teacher is really asking is:
    Do you know the name for this in English?
and, if that really is the question, learners may be forgiven for asking:
    Then why didn't you ask me that question?
It may also be the case that the teacher is encouraging the learner to demonstrate that she can use the phrase It's and follow it with a suitable determiner and noun.  That is a reasonable focus on form but the exchange is still not anything like real communication.

We can, therefore analyse any piece of language two ways.  Take, for example, something said such as:

My house is on the corner

We can analyse that two ways:

  1. The formal way:
    We have 6 words divided into three parts, like this:
    1. my + house = the subject of the sentence, made up from a possessive determiner (my) + a simple noun (house)
    2. is = the verb which links the first two words to the rest of the sentence
    3. on + the + corner = a phrase telling us where something is, made up from on (a preposition) + the (an article) + corner (a noun)
  2. The functional way:
    We have a simple utterance of six words and it might mean:
    1. Please stop there and let me out (passenger to driver)
    2. This will help you to find my house (giving instructions)
    3. My house has a bigger garden than most of them in my street (explaining a fact)

This simple sentence might mean a number of other things depending on who is talking to whom, where they are and what they need to communicate.


The 1970s

Functional approaches to teaching the language came into vogue in the 1970s and have remained to the fore ever since.  More recently, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in combining formal approaches (understanding and learning structure) with communicative approaches (learning to get things done in the language).  Here's a quotation from a leading theorist in the field:

 ... language learning is essentially learning how grammar functions in the achievement of meaning and it is a mistake to suppose otherwise.
 .... A communicative approach does not involve the rejection of grammar. On the contrary, it involves a recognition of its central mediating role in the use of and learning of language.
Widdowson (1990: 97/8)

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, many believe, 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

a pot, a cup, a vase or a jar?  

One form may have a number of functions.
Here are some examples.

This language ... ... could mean
The professor 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:



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.
If you want a manageable list of 68 basic functions, there is one in the introduction to functions (new tab).


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 adjacency pairs with examples:

apologising accepting or rejecting apologies
I'm awfully sorry
Excuse me!
That's OK
Not just now
No you aren't
asking for permission granting or denying permission
May I see you for a minute?
Can I ask a question?
Will you let me help?
Yes, of course
Wait till I have finished
asking directions giving directions
Can you tell me where the station is?
Is this the right way to the beach?
Yes, it's at the end of the next road on the left
I don't know

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


Alternative responses

You may also have noticed that many functions have alternate responses:

  1. positive: the outcome the hearer wants
        Can you help me with this?
        Yes, of course!
  2. negative: the outcome the hearer does not want
        Can you help me with this?
        Sorry, no.
  3. called temporising: neither positive not negative but putting off the response
        Can you help me with this?
        Not right now.

Learners need, of course, to be able to use all three.

one and many

One function, many forms

The other side of the coin is that we can use a number of forms to realise, i.e. perform, the same function.  If I want to advise you, I can say, e.g.:
    You should see a doctor
    You ought to get to the doctor
    Do you think it wouldn't be a good idea to see a doctor?
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 con
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