The part that a word or constituent
plays within a larger structure - for example, Subject
are functions within the clause. Function is distinct from form
, which concerns structural categories such as word classes
. Functional elements can be 'filled' by different formal elements - for example, in The boy ate the biscuits
, the boy
is both a noun phrase (form) and the Subject (function). The same noun phrase can operate as the Object (function) in a different example, such as She told the boy
Functional labels always begin with a capital letter.
A quick activity looking at how some words can be both nouns and verbs
This is a simple starter activity that will help your students see how some words can function as both nouns and verbs. The activity is designed to be carried out in pairs around the class. One student be the noun and the other will be the verb. Each will need the same word list (which you can download and print below) or you can just use the word list on the screen.
A useful distinction in grammar is that of form and function. Grammatical form is concerned with the description of linguistic
units in terms of what they are, and grammatical function is concerned with the description of what these linguistic
units do. Note that we use capital letters at the beginning of function labels.
Subjects, Direct Objects and Indirect Objects are typically noun phrases (and sometimes clauses) which identify participants in the situation described by the main verb – they answer ‘who’ or ‘what’ questions.
Adverbials are rather different. Consider the highlighted phrases in the examples below:
Consider the examples below. What do the highlighted phrases add to the meanings?
- He stroked the dog. [W2F-018 #175]
- They carried mugs of beer. [W2F-018 #140]
These phrases tell us who or what is being 'verbed', i.e. who is undergoing the action denoted by the verbs, in these situations: the dog is stroked, the mugs of beer are carried. Without these phrases, our examples would be incomplete.
The description of word classes, phrases, and clauses in terms of their structure is part of the study of form. We now turn to the study of grammar from the perspective of function: this notion refers to what words, phrases and clauses do as units of language.
Consider the following example. Here we have two noun phrases which follow the Predicator (the verb).
- I’ll give [you] [the school’s number]. [W2F-020 #192]
Can you see how they build up the meaning of the clause? Both noun phrases refer to participants in the situation of ‘giving’, but the participants have different roles.
Consider the highlighted phrases in the following examples. How do they contribute to the clauses?
- She found the maths incredibly hard. [S1A-054#137]
- I found the changeover a trying time. [W2B-012#101]
These phrases describe the thing picked out by the Direct Object. The maths is described as incredibly hard (for her). The changeover is described as a trying time (for me).
The Subject of a sentence is often defined as the phrase identifying the agent that carries out the action denoted by the verb. All the examples below involve actions (fleeing, sniffing, writing) carried out by the individuals referred to by the highlighted phrases, and for this reason we identify these phrases as Subjects.
Consider the highlighted phrases in the examples below.
- The rice is marvellous. [S1A-022 #262]
- He was a really nice guy. [S1A-006 #21]
Each of the highlighted phrases adds information about the person or thing picked out by the Subject. Marvellous attributes a property to the rice, and a really nice guy does the same for he.
These phrases have different forms but the same function.
Verbs have traditionally been described as ‘doing words’ or ‘action words’. This works well for some verbs, like sprint, chatter, eat. Here are some sentence examples with verbs which describe actions:
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