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    Form and Function

    Part One

    A recent thread in the Ask a Teacher forum was prolonged/sidetracked by a discussion between MikeNewYork and me on the meaning of ‘form’ and ‘function’. I have created this thread in the hope that we will not prolong/sidetrack future threads. If the subject is mentioned in such threads, we can simply provide a link to this thread. Any member is, of course, welcome to join this thread.

    Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; and Svartik, Jan (1985.47-8), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Harlow: Longman:

    We may classify a unit either on the basis of its FORM (eg its internal structure, as a noun phrase or as a verb phrase, or on the basis of its FUNCTION (eg as a subject or an object of its clause). By function is meant a unit’s ‘privilege of occurrence’ in terms of its position, mobility, optionality, etc, in the unit of which it is a constituent.Two units which have the same privilege of occurrence may be said to be FUNCTIONALLY EQUIVALENT. Thus the final phrases of [1] [= The weather has been very cold just recently], [2] (= The weather has been very cold this month] and [1d] [= the weather has been very cold during the past week], although they belong to different formal categories (adverb phrase, noun phrase, prepositional phrase) may be said to belong to the same functional category of ADVERBIAL.

    McArthur, Tom and Greenbaum, Sidney in McArthur Tom (ed) (1992.410,422)), The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford: OUP:

    FORM structure ((singular man, plural men). In linguistics, a category such as ‘noun’ when analysed in terms of
    structure (singular man, plural men) and function (subject and object of sentence).

    FUNCTION. In linguistics, the relation between linguistic units in a hierarchy: the adjective large functions as the modifier of the noun house in the noun phrase that large house, and in turn the noun phrase that large house functions as subject in the sentence That large house belongs to Jill’s parents. In this sense, function contrasts with form.

    Chalker, Sylvia and Weiner,Edmund (1993.157, 163-4), The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd edn, Oxford, OUP:


    1. One of the ways in which a word may be spelt or pronounced or inflected.
    All lexical verbs (represented by an abstract LEXEME have several forms. For example, see has five forms: see, sees, seeing, saw, seen, while several verbs have two past tense forms (both spoken and written), e.g. spelt, spelled. Some nouns have two alternative plural forms, e.g. indices/indexes. [...]
    3. The internal structure of a linguistic unit.
    Above word level, phrases can be analysed by their formal constituents. Thus, a noun phrase may consist of a single noun (e.g. people) but often contains a determiner and an adjective (e.g. the best people) and possibly post-modification too (all these people you were telling me about).

    Form contrasts with FUNCTION here. ‘Noun Phrase’ is a formal category, but a noun phrase can function not only as a subject or object, but also (less typically) adverbially (e.g. We had a storm last night) Conversely, a noun phrase may exceptionally not contain a noun or pronoun; e.g. in The poor are always with us, an adjective (poor) is the head of the noun phrase.


    1. The syntactic role that a linguistic unit takes within a ‘higher’ unit such as a clause or sentence; distinguished from its FORM.

    The five ELEMENTS of clause structure, namely Subject, Verb, Object, Complement and Adverbial are defined by virtue of their functions. Although the function of verb is always realized by a verb phrase, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the other functional sentence elements and their possible formal realizations. Thus the function of subject (like object) is often realized by a noun phrase but could, for example, be realized by a verb phrase (e.g. To err is human), while on a lower level such a verb phrase might function as part of a noun phrase (e.g. A tendency to err).

  2. Piscean's Avatar
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    Re: Form and Function

    Part Two

    Huddleston, Rodney and Pullum, Geoffrey er al (2002.20-24), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge: CUP:

    Three essential concepts figure in the theory we use to describe English syntax in this grammar. Each is very simple to grasp, Put together they permit extremely broad and powerful theories to be constructed for indefinitely large collections of sentences. We express them tersely i [1].

    [1] i. Sentences have parts, which may themselves have parts.
    ii. The parts of sentences belong to a limited range of types.

    iii, The parts have specific roles or functions within the larger parts they belong to.
    The idea that sentences have parts which themselves may have parts, i.e. that larger stretches of material in a sentence are made up by putting together smaller stretches, is the basis of ‘constituent structure’ analysis. The idea that that parts fall into a limited range of types that we can name and refer to when giving a grammatical description is the root of the concept of ‘syntactic categories’.And the idea that the parts also have specific roles or functions, or special slots that they fill in the larger parts they belong to, is the idea of ‘grammatical functions. [...]

    Constituent structure

    Consider a simple one-clause sentence like A bird hit the car. It is divisible in the first instance into two parts, a bird (the subject)and hit the car (the predicate). The phrase a bird is itself made up of smaller parts, a and bird; so is hit the car, which we can divide into hit and the car; and finally the car also has two parts, the and car.This structure can be represented as in [2]: H & P draw a tree diagram hee, I cannot reproduce this, so I have used brackets to illustrate their point . Piscean]

    [2] {[(A) (bird)] [/hit/ /(the) (car)/] }


    Syntactic categories

    Diagram [2] shows just the hierarchical part-whole relationship in the sentence. This is only the starting point for a description, identifying the constituents that have to be described. The next step is to say what syntactic category they belong to. For words, these syntactic categories correspond to what are traditionally called the ‘parts of speech, and most of the categories for larger constituents are based on the ones for words. Where we need to refer to just the categories that have words as members, we will call them lexical categories. [...] Our complete list is given, with some illustrations of membership [below]:

    i. noun - tree, pig, sugar, hatred …
    ii. verb - do, fly, melt, think …
    iii. adjective - good, nice, big, easy, …
    iv. adverb - obviously, easily, helpfully, frankly, …
    v. preposition -of, to, by, into, …
    vi. determinative - the, this, that, s(n), ...
    vii. subordinator - that, for, to, whether, …
    viii. coordinator - and, or, but, nor
    ix. interjection - ah, damn, gosh, hey, … [...]

    Constituents containing more than one word (more specifically, containing a central and most important word augmented by appropriate accompanying words that elaborate its contribution to the sentence are called phrases, and are assigned to phrasal categories. The lexical categories have corresponding phrase types that are in a sense expansions of them [...]:

    i. clause - she saw something in there
    ii. verb phrase -saw something in there
    iii. noun phrase - this clear case of dedication to duty
    iv. nominal - clear case of dedication to duty
    v. adjective phrase - very eager for further news
    vi. adverb phrase - quite separately from this issue
    vii. preposition phrase - right out of the area
    viii. determinative phrase - almost every [...]

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    Re: Form and Function

    Part Three (Continuing with Huddleston and Pullum)

    The third theoretical idea we must introduce is that constituents always have particular roles to play in the constructions, the larger units that they belong to. We call these roles grammatical functions. In our example sentence [A bird hit the car] the phrases a bird and the car belong to the same category, MP, but they have different function, subject and object respectively. They belong to the same category because they are alike in their internal structure (both have a noun as the major element), but they have different functions because they stand in different relations to the verb. The opposite type of situation is illustrated in such a pair as

    1. His guilt was obvious.
    2. That he was guilty was obvious.

    Here the underlined constituents have the same function (subject) but belong to different categories (NP and clause respectively.They have the same function because they stand in the same relation to the predicate, and they belong in different categories because the first is centred on a noun (guilt) and the second is centres ultimately on a verb (was). We say that the subject is realised by an NP in [a], by a clause in [b].

    There is a set of functions that to a large extent apply within all phrasal categories. The first division we make is that between the headand the various dependents that can combine with it.

    The head, normally obligatory, plays the primary role in the distribution of the phrase, i.e. whereabouts in sentence structue it can occur. [...]

    Depndents, often otonal, are syntactically subordinate elements. [...]

    Within this framework, what is traditionally called the predicate is a special case of the head function: the predicate is the head of the clause. Similarly, the term predicator is commonly used for the function of the verb itself, i.e. for the head of the verb phrase. [...]

    Dependent is a very general function, and for many purposes we need to distinguish different subtypes of dependen according to their more specific relation to the head. At the first level of subdivision, we distinguish between complements, modifiers, and determiners, illustrated here in NP structure:

    i. the photographs of their dog that they had brought with them, [complement]
    ii. the photographs of their dog that they had brought with them, [modifier]
    iii. the photographs of their dog that they had brought with them, [determiner]

    Aarts, Bas (2011.20, 84-5, 114), Oxford Modern English Grammar, Oxford: OUP:


    morphology (‘the study of form’)
    - inflection
    - word-formation
    minor types [...]

    Word classes


    Grammatical functions at clause level:
    - Direct Object
    - Indirect Object
    Predicative Complement
    - Subject-related
    - Object-related
    PP as Complement
    Complement Clause [...]

    Grammatical functions at phrase level
    Pre-Head Adjunct
    Post-Head Adjunct
    External Adjunct (only in MPs)
    Determiner and Predeterminer (only in MPs)

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