Form and function (2)

We saw in the blog post Form and function (1) that grammatical form and grammatical function are not always clearly kept apart in the National Curriculum.

Recall that ‘form’ refers to the category labels that we use for the building blocks of language, i.e. word classes (e.g. noun, verb, adjective, etc.), phrases (e.g. noun phrase, adjective phrase, etc.) and clauses (e.g. relative clause). By contrast ‘function’ refers to the grammatical functions (e.g. Subject, Object, Adverbial, etc.) that the various building blocks can perform.

In this blog post we’ll look at some further example of sentences analysed at the levels of form and function.

Consider the following sentences:

  • They closed the cinema last month.
  • The weather improved over the weekend.
  • He is an electrician.
  • The radio played a track that I love.
  • This class will visit a museum next week.
  • The paper has published the allegations.
  • The president hasn’t appeared on the news since the scandal erupted.

These are analysed as follows using boxes to indicate the form (blue) and function (orange) levels.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 08.54.34

This is a simple sentence containing a Subject, Object and Adverbial.  Each of these take the form of a noun phrase. The verb in this example is transitive, which simply means that it takes an Object. Notice that the verb carries the function label of Predicator. This term is not statutory in the National Curriculum, but useful to know.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 09.07.39

In this case we again have a Subject in the form of a noun phrase. The verb on this occasion is intransitive, i.e. it does not take an Object. It is followed by a preposition phrase that functions as Adverbial.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 08.56.39

In this sentence the Subject takes the form of  a pronoun. The verb is a special kind of verb called a linking verb (also called copula). The noun phrase that follows it functions as Subject Complement. The latter gives information about the Subject. (Incidentally, if you are wondering why he is not a noun phrase, remember that in the National Curriculum a word on its own does not form a phrase. In some models of grammar he would be both a pronoun and a noun phrase.)

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 08.56.18

Here again we have a sentence that contains a transitive verb (play). Both the Subject and Object are in the form of a noun phrase. In this case the noun phrase that functions as Object has a relative clause inside it. Relative clauses give additional information about the noun they go with, in this case track.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 08.57.46

In this example the Subject and Object are again in the form of a noun phrase. We also have an Adverbial in the form of a noun phrase. This sentence shows very clearly why we should keep the levels of form and function apart: a noun phrase can perform different kinds of functions. What about the verb? Well, in this case we have two of them: visit is the main verb, preceded by the modal auxiliary verb will. The latter indicates that ‘visiting a museum’ is an event foreseen in the future.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 08.58.24

In this  example, apart from a Subject and Object in the shape of a noun phrase, we again have two verbs, namely the auxiliary verb have and the past participle form of the main verb publish. Together these two verbs form the perfect form of the verb have.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 08.58.56

In this last example the verb is intransitive. It is followed by two units functioning as Adverbial: one is a preposition phrase; the other is a subordinate clause introduced by the subordinating conjunction since. Within the subordinate clause the scandal functions as Subject. Because erupt is an intransitive verb, there is no Object in this clause.

8 thoughts on “Form and function (2)

  1. In the last example the “main clause” heading at the top extends across the entire sentence. Is main clause the same as independent clause? Is this not a complex sentence and therefore would “main clause” not just be referring to “The president hasn’t appeared on the news”.


  2. How would one analyze the following phrase and sentence using x-bar:
    a) With a rusty grill
    b) The young barmaid at the Duck and Drake

    A follow-up question: Is x-bar more useful in analyzing syntactic trees or can you get the same answer without it



  3. Hi Bas,
    Would you be able to do a post covering how to tell the difference between a subordinate clause that performs the function of an adverbial within a main clause, and when it is performing the function of constructing a complex sentence as both the form sub-CL and function subordinate clause? I haven’t found an especially definitive explanation as many of the examples of sb-cl adverbials I look at and think must surely be performing the function of a complex sentence or visa versa.


    • Thanks for your question Aaron. I have put your suggestion on my list of ‘to do’ posts, but in the mean time, perhaps you can have a look at one of the grammar books I wrote, specifically the Oxford Modern English Grammar because it deals with this topic extensively. (There is now also a shorter version of this book entitled ‘English grammar: all you need to know’, only available on Amazon.)


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