Glossary: grammatical function

Explanation

The function filled by a constituent within the clause, such as Subject or Direct Object.

Adverbial

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:

Direct Object

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.

Grammatical functions in the clause

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.

Indirect Object

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.

Object Complement

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).

Subject

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 (fleeingsniffingwriting) carried out by the individuals referred to by the highlighted phrases, and for this reason we identify these phrases as Subjects.

Subject Complement

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.

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