Form and function (1)

‘Form’ and ‘function’ are two extremely important concepts that you need to know about to fully understand how grammar works. Surprisingly, there is no overt reference to these terms in the UK National Curriculum.

‘Form’ refers to the category labels we use for the building blocks of grammar, i.e. word classes, phrases, and clauses. Consider the following sentence:

  • My daughter bought a completely useless smartphone over the summer.

Scanning this sentence from left to right we can label each individual word as follows:

  • my: determiner
  • daughter: noun
  • bought: verb
  • a: determiner
  • completely: adverb
  • new: adjective
  • smartphone: noun
  • over: preposition
  • the: determiner
  • summer: noun

All the word class labels above are referred to as grammatical form labels. Still talking about form, we can also say that:

  • my daughter is a noun phrase
  • a completely useless smartphone is also a noun phrase
  • over the summer is a preposition phrase

The terms ‘noun phrase’, ‘preposition phrase’, etc. are also grammatical form labels.

Digging deeper into the phrases a completely useless smartphone and over the summer we can also say that:

  • completely useless is an adjective phrase within the larger noun phrase a completely useless smartphone
  • with the preposition phrase over the summer we have an embedded noun phrase, namely the summer

(In some grammars we also have verb phrases such that bought on its own forms a verb phrase or, if the direct object is included in the verb phrase, bought a new smartphone. The National Curriculum doesn’t recognise verb phrases as such. Instead verbs are regarded as the Heads of clauses. For some further explanation, look here.)

In summary, when we are talking about form, we are talking about structure. We can visualise structure using what linguists call tree diagrams. For a completely useless smartphone the tree looks like this:


We are also taking about form when we have subordination in a phrase or clause. So, in the following example the string that she lives in Leicester is a subordinate clause:

  • I know that she lives in Leicester.

‘Subordinate clause’ is a further example of a grammatical form label.

There’s more to say about form, but for now this will do.

What about ‘function’? It is important to be aware that this label is actually ambiguous: it can have a general sense and a grammatical sense. These are often confused.

Let’s look at the general sense first. Consider the utterance below:

  • Fortunately, the pain went away very quickly.

The word fortunately in this sentence is an adverb that has a pragmatic function: it signals that the speaker views what follows (namely the pain going away quickly) as a good thing.

Very in the adverb phrase very quickly is also an adverb which functions in a general sense to ‘intensify’ the meaning of the adverb quickly. So from a general functional point of view we can say that this word is an intensifier. This can be called a semantic function.

Turning now to the grammatical sense of ‘function’ (which is actually best referred to as ‘grammatical function’), we need to say different things about the sentence above.

Taking the word fortunately again, this time we say that its grammatical function is Adverbial.  Words and phrases that have the grammatical function of Adverbial modify a particular unit in a sentence. In this case fortunately modifies an entire clause. In the example sentence very quickly also has the grammatical function of Adverbial, but in this case it modifies the verb go. More specifically, it expresses the manner in which the pain went away. Adverbials can also express other meanings, e.g. location and time, as in these examples:

  • We had a picnic in the park (preposition phrase functioning as Adverbial)
  • They left Hong Kong last week (noun phrase functioning as Adverbial)

Apart from Adverbial, other familiar grammatical function labels are Subject, Object and Complement (which includes Subject complement and Object complement).

The conclusion from all this is that we need to be careful when we use the word ‘function’ when talking about language and grammar. It’s important to make clear whether we are talking about general functions, such as ‘disapproving’, ‘commenting’, ‘intensifying’, and the like, or about grammatical functions, such as Subject, Object and Adverbial.

See also: Form and function (2), Adverb and adverbial


15 thoughts on “Form and function (1)

  1. Dear Sir,
    My mother tongue is Dutch and I have children in English schools. I have always thought the way grammar is taught here in England is confusing. In Flanders, we always made a clear distinction between “woordleer” (noun, adjective, …) and “zinsleer” (subject, direct object, indirect object, …) in our Dutch, Latin, French, German and English lessons. By reading your blog post, I’ve realized that my children only learn form labels and no function labels. In my opinion, function labels are much more important, especially when applying this knowledge to languages with cases.
    Do you think there is a reason why children have to learn form labels but are not taught the function of words in a sentence?


    • Thanks for your comment, Katrien. We do have the functional notions of Subject, Object and Adverbial in the National Curriculum, but in general form and function are not explicitly taught in the National Curriculum, which is a shame, because these notions are crucial for an understanding of how grammar works. This is what prompted me to write this blog post.


  2. Hi Dr. Aarts,

    I am a Computer Scientists and I love your book English Syntax and Argumentation. It helped me a lot to really understand the English language.

    I have a question for you. How do you draw sentence level adverbials in a tree.
    Fortunately, the pain went away very quickly.

    “Fortunately” confuses the me because I haven’t seen any examples of it in tree diagrams. I was thinking perhaps to add a sentence level adjunct and drop a Sentence projection like S’.
    What do you think?


  3. Pingback: Adverb and adverbial | GRAMMARIANISM

  4. Dear Bas,

    Looking at preposition phrases vs adverbials has raised questions for me about the distinction between grammatical form and function. This is the conclusion I have drawn (what do you think?):

    Grammatical form is how a word/ phrase/ clause functions in isolation, whereas grammatical form is how it functions in context (i.e. in relation to the greater syntax within which it arises). Therefore, as ‘next Monday’ functions as a noun in isolation, it has the grammatical form of a noun phrase, and as it functions adverbially in the sentence ‘she’ll go next Monday’ , it has the grammatical function of an adverbial. However, ‘in the morning’ clearly has adverbial function in this context ‘she’ll go in the morning’, but what function can it be said to have in isolation? Surely it can’t be a preposition phrase as the prepositional object ‘the morning’ is included, preventing the entire phrase from acting as a preposition. I would say that ‘in the heart of’ is a preposition phrase, as it functions as a preposition in isolation (no object included) but what is the head of the phrase?


    • We can often only tell to which word class a word belongs when it appears in a sentence, and the same applies to the grammatical function performed by a phrase. In the sentence ‘She’ll go next Monday’ the noun phrase ‘next Monday’ indeed has the function of adverbial. (Note that ‘next Monday’ is a noun phrase, not just a noun.) The preposition phrase (PP) ‘in the morning’ cannot be said to have any function in isolation; you need to put it into a sentence. Have a look at my post on ‘Adverb and adverbial’ where I make clear that a noun phrase like ‘last week’ can have various functions, depending on where it occurs in the sentence. In your sentence ‘She’ll go in the morning’ the PP functions as adverbial. Finally, as regards ‘in the heart of’, this isn’t a unit, as a noun phrase is missing at the end. If we have ‘in the heart of the city’ we have a PP overall, which contain a PP inside it, much like a Russian doll.


  5. thanks for such a wonderful submission to end user. but i want to know why in grammar there is not always one right answer and the main differences between prepositional, adjectival adverbial phrases and preposition, adjective, adverb phrases


  6. I need some further clarification. I’ve got myself in an imbroglio on an English usage website and I think your form and function article is relevant to resolving the problem. I was taught that infinitives are verbals that function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. So when I see a sentence like, “To hunt is my favorite pastime” and am asked to analyze this at the level of “Parts of Speech” I label “to hunt” as a noun whereas my antagonists label it as a verb. So can the form/function dichotomy also operate within Word classes? As far as I know, an infinitive never “functions” as a verb so I always feel compelled to identify it as another part of speech (noun, adj, adv.). Can you add some clarity to this specific issue or direct me elsewhere. Thank you so much


    • Thanks for your query, Joseph. I would analyse the sentence ‘To hunt is my favourite pastime’ as follows: The Subject of this sentence is a clause, namely ‘to hunt’. It is perhaps a strange clause because it lacks an overt Subject and also has no Object, but it is a clause nonetheless ( We then have the verb ‘is’, which is followed by a noun phrase ‘my favourite pastime’. This noun phrase functions as Complement (, more specifically a Subject Complement (

      We have just published a book called ‘How to Teach Grammar’ which discusses structures like this ( and you may also want to have a look at my Oxford Modern English Grammar (


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  8. Pingback: Consider Teaching Fair | GRAMMARIANISM

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