Form and function

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.

Understanding the way that form and function relate to one another has important implications for text production and comprehension, and enables students to more accurately discuss how grammatical structure relates to meaning. 

Table 1 lists the linguistic units relevant to the form and function level (note that we use capital letters at the beginning of function labels):

Form

Function

Word classes

noun, adjective, verb, adverb, determiner, pronoun, conjunction, preposition

 

Phrases

noun phrase, adjective phrase, adverb phrase, preposition phrase

 

Clauses

main clause, subordinate clause, relative clause

Subject

Predicator

Object

Adverbial

Complement

Modifier

 

Table 1: form and function

It may be useful to revisit the relevant pages on word classes, phrases, clauses and function labels if you need to.

Let's see how form-function operates in language. Consider the following two sentences:

(1) The boy kissed the girl.

(2) The girl kissed the boy.

 

In (1), the boy is doing the kissing, meaning it is the Subject; whereas in (2), the boy is being kissed, meaning it is the Object. But the boy is a noun phrase in both examples. We can use a table to show the form/function interface more clearly:

FORM

main clause

noun phrase

 

noun phrase

determiner

noun

verb

determiner

noun

 

the

boy

kissed

the

girl

FUNCTION

Subject

Predicator

Object

In this activity, students are asked to work out the form and function labels of a list of given sentences.

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