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function word

Adapted from Teach Yourself Linguistics by Jean Aitchison (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

Definition:

A word that expresses a grammatical or structural relationship with other words in a sentence.

In contrast to a content word, a function word has little or no meaningful content. Function words are also known as grammatical words.

Function words include determiners (for example, the, that), conjunctions (and, but), prepositions (in, of), pronouns (she, they), auxiliary verbs (be, have), modals (may, could), and quantifers (some, both).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "In contrast to content words, function words, such as determiners and auxiliary verbs, do not have 'contentful' meanings; rather, they are defined in terms of their use, or function. For example, the meaning of the auxiliary verb is in Leo is running is difficult to define, but we can say that the function of the auxiliary verb is in this case is to express present tense (to see this, compare Leo was running). Function words are closed class words. Though we freely add new members to open classes of words, we don't coin new determiners or conjunctions, nor do we come up with new pronouns, modal verbs, or auxiliary verbs (have, be, and do)."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2010)


  • "Function words are like thumbtacks. We don't notice thumbtacks; we look at the calendar or the poster they are holding up. If we were to take the tacks away, the calendar and the poster would fall down. Likewise, if we took the function words out of speech, it would be hard to figure out what was going on:
    took function words speech hard figure going on*
    That is what the previous sentence would look like if we took out all of the function words."
    (Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Anne Fudeman, What Is Morphology? Wiley-Blackwell, 2005)

    * Note that go(ing) on is a phrasal verb.


  • "Most people with low self-esteem have earned it."
    (George Carlin)


  • "Liberal and conservative have lost their meaning in America. I represent the distracted center."
    (Jon Stewart)


  • "Trying is the first step towards failure."
    (Homer Simpson)


  • "Every book is a children's book if the kid can read."
    (Mitch Hedberg)


  • Function Words in Speech
    "Most monosyllabic function words, unlike content words, are unstressed . . .. Prepositions, conjunctions, and articles are regularly unstressed, and auxiliary verbs and adverbs are usually unstressed--though note that auxiliaries are often used for emphasis, in which case they are stressed: "I did pay the bills."
    (Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995)
Also Known As: grammatical word, grammatical functor, grammatical morpheme, function morpheme, form word, empty word
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