Category: Grammatical Form, Grammatical Function|November 26, 2011 12:15 pm

Grammatical Form and Grammatical Function: A Metaphor

I have discovered that distinguishing between grammatical form and grammatical function is surprisingly difficult for most grammar students to grasp. In my mind, grammatical form (what a word looks like) is clearly separate from grammatical function (what a word does). But, how can I more effectively explain this difference to the non-grammar nerd?

Defining Form and Function

All languages contain a finite, or limited, number of grammatical forms. Traditional grammars use the term “parts of speech” as the term for “what a word, phrase, or clause looks like.” The English language has only eight grammatical forms or parts of speech:

  1. Noun
  2. Adjective
  3. Determiner
  4. Verb
  5. Adverb
  6. Preposition
  7. Conjunction
  8. Interjection

All languages, too, contain a finite, or limited, number of grammatical functions. Traditional grammars do not have a term for grammatical form, which is “what a word, phrase, or clause does.” Although my count may differ from the count of other grammarians, I have identified thirty-two grammatical functions in the English language:

  1. Subject
  2. Predicate
  3. Direct Object
  4. Indirect Object
  5. Subject Complement (Predicate Nominative and Predicate Adjective)
  6. Object Complement
  7. Prepositional Complement
  8. Prepositional Phrase Modifier
  9. Noun Phrase Modifier
  10. Noun Phrase Complement
  11. Noun Clause Modifier
  12. Appositive
  13. Adjective Phrase Modifier
  14. Adjective Phrase Complement
  15. Verb Phrase Modifier
  16. Verb Phrase Complement
  17. Progressive
  18. Perfect
  19. Passive
  20. Modal
  21. Operator
  22. Adverb Phrase Modifier
  23. Adjunct Adverbial
  24. Disjunct Adverbial
  25. Conjunct Adverbial
  26. Determinative
  27. Particle
  28. Infinitive Marker
  29. Coordinator
  30. Subordinator
  31. Correlator
  32. Interjector

Of the eight grammatical forms, some forms can perform only one function while other forms can perform multiple functions. And, of the thirty-one grammatical functions, some functions can be performed by only one form while other functions can be performed by multiple forms. I get this. Form. Function. No big deal. But, clearly not all grammar students do understand the difference.

Using Metaphor

Most English teachers love to talk about metaphor. And, I think, most students at some level can grasp the idea of metaphor. So, why not use a metaphor to clarify the difference between grammatical form and grammatical function? Let’s look at people and their occupations.

First, let’s assume that we are in a world in which two types of people exist: men and women. Since we do live in this kind of world, the concept of two types of people, or forms, is relatively easy to grasp. So, the two forms of people are:

  1. Man
  2. Woman

But, what if, unlike in our world, there are only three occupations that people can have. Pretend that the people in this metaphorical world can choose to be mothers, fathers, or teachers. These three jobs are the only ones available. And, since occupations are something people do, let’s call these jobs functions. So, the three functions of people are:

  1. Mother
  2. Father
  3. Teacher

We now have our two forms (man, woman) and three functions (mother, father, teacher). The forms are what people look like, and the functions are what people do. Still with me? Now let’s see which forms can perform which functions and which functions can be performed by which forms.

What functions can the form of man do? Well, men can be fathers, and men can be teachers. So, we can say that the functions of the form man are father and teacher. Similarly, woman can be mothers, and women can be teachers. So, the functions of the form woman are mother and teacher.

The idea of only women being mothers and only men being fathers is pretty easy to understand. If a man has a child, he is called a father. If a woman has a child, she is called a mother. A man cannot be a mother, and a woman cannot be a father. That’s just the way it is.

But, what about teacher? Clearly, both men and women can be teachers. There is no rule that states only men or only women can be teachers. So, the function of teacher can be performed by two forms while the functions of mother and father can only be performed by one form. Still following me?

So, to sum this metaphor up:

  1. The form “man” can perform two functions: father and teacher.
  2. The form “woman” can perform two functions: mother and teacher.
  3. The function “mother” can be performed by one form: woman.
  4. The function “father can be performed by one form: man.
  5. The function “teacher” can be performed by two forms: man and woman.

Applying the Metaphor to Grammar

Now let’s apply the idea of the metaphor of people and occupations to English grammar by looking at two grammatical forms: noun and adjective.

We must first identify the functions that can be performed by the two forms. Nouns perform eleven main grammatical functions:

  1. Noun phrase head
  2. Subject
  3. Subject complement
  4. Direct object
  5. Object complement
  6. Indirect object
  7. Prepositional complement
  8. Noun phrase modifier
  9. Possessive modifier
  10. Appositive
  11. Adverbial

Adjectives perform four main grammatical functions:

  1. Adjective phrase head
  2. Noun phrase modifier
  3. Subject complement
  4. Object complement

After just glancing at these two lists, most people can say that some of the functions are shared by nouns and adjectives while some of the functions can be formed by only one or the other. For example, the functions that can only be performed by nouns are:

  1. Noun phrase head
  2. Subject
  3. Direct object
  4. Indirect object
  5. Prepositional complement
  6. Possessive modifier
  7. Appositive
  8. Adverbial

The function that can only be performed by adjectives is:

  1. Adjective phrase head

And, the functions that can be performed by both nouns and adjectives are:

  1. Noun phrase modifier
  2. Subject complement
  3. Object complement

So, to sum up our findings:

  1. The form of “noun” can perform eleven functions.
  2. The form of “adjective can perform four functions.
  3. Eight functions can be performed by only nouns.
  4. One function can be performed by only adjectives.
  5. Three functions can be performed by both nouns and adjectives.

Hopefully my comparison of people and occupations to grammatical forms and grammatical functions will help grammar students better understand the difference between form and function. Just remember: form does not equal function, but more than one form can perform the same function, and one function can be performed by more than one form.


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