Function Word

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A function word is a linguistic word whose referent is (largely) a natural language grammar function.



  • (Wikipedia, 2016) ⇒ Retrieved:2016-5-23.
    • The distinction between function/structure words and content/lexical words proposed by C.C. Fries in 1952 has been highly influential in the grammar used in second language acquisition and English Language teaching. Function words are words that have little lexical meaning or have ambiguous meaning, but instead serve to express grammatical relationships with other words within a sentence, or specify the attitude or mood of the speaker. They signal the structural relationships that words have to one another and are the glue that holds sentences together. Thus, they serve as important elements to the structures of sentences. Words that are not function words are called content words (or open class words or lexical words or autosemantic words): these include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs, although some adverbs are function words (e.g., then and why). Dictionaries define the specific meanings of content words, but can only describe the general usages of function words. By contrast, grammars describe the use of function words in detail, but treat lexical words in general terms only. Function words might be prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, grammatical articles or particles, all of which belong to the group of closed-class words. Interjections are sometimes considered function words but they belong to the group of open-class words. Function words might or might not be inflected or might have affixes. Function words belong to the closed class of words in grammar in that it is very uncommon to have new function words created in the course of speech, whereas in the open class of words (that is, nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs) new words may be added readily (such as slang words, technical terms, and adoptions and adaptations of foreign words). See neologism. Each function word either gives some grammatical information on other words in a sentence or clause, and cannot be isolated from other words, or it may indicate the speaker's mental model as to what is being said.

      Grammatical words, as a class, can have distinct phonological properties from content words. Grammatical words sometimes do not make full use of all the sounds in a language. For example, in some of the Khoisan languages, most content words begin with clicks, but very few function words do. In English, very few words other than function words begin with voiced th-"voiced dental fricative” (see Pronunciation of English th); English function words may have less than three letters 'I', 'an', 'in' while non-function words usually have three or more 'eye', 'Ann', 'inn' (see three letter rule).

      The following is a list of the kind of words considered to be function words:



  • (Crystal, 2008) ⇒ David Crystal. (2008). “A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th edition." Blackwell Publishing.
    • QUOTE: lexis (n.) A term used in LINGUISTIC to refer to the vocabulary of a LANGUAGE … A UNIT of vocabulary is generally referred to as a lexical item , or LEXEME. A complete inventory of the lexical items of a language constitutes that language's dictionary, or LEXICON … 'in the lexicon' as a set of lexical entries . … … Lexis may be seen in contrast with GRAMMAR, as in the distinction between 'grammatical WORDS' and lexical words : the former refers to words whose sole function is to signal grammatical relationships (a role which is claimed for such words as of, to and the in English); the latter refers to words which have lexical meaning , i.e. they have semantic CONTENT. Examples include lexical verbs (versus auxiliary verbs) and lexical noun phrases (versus non-lexical NPs, such as PRO). A similar contrast distinguishes lexical morphology from derivational MORPHOLOGY.


  • (Bauer, 2000) ⇒ Laurie Bauer. (2000). “Word.” In: "Morphology.", edited by Geert Booij, Christian Lehmann, and Joachim Mugdan. ISBN:9783110111286
    • QUOTE: The terms grammatical word or (because of the ambiguity of “grammatical word", which can also be opposed to "lexical" or "content word", see 2.3 and Art. 27). morphosyntactic word are now widely used in this sense (Lyons 1968: 196; 1977: 73; Bauer 1988: 244).


  • (Carter, 1998) ⇒ Ronald Carter. (1998). “Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspectives; 2nd edition." Routledge.
    • QUOTE: An important question which also arises her concerns our own metalanguage in this book. Should we talk of words or word-forms or lexemes or lexical items? It is clear that the uses of these words word or vocabulary have a general common-sense validity and are serviceable when there is no real need to be precise. They will continue to be used for general reference. The terms lexeme and the word-forms of a lexeme are valuable theoretical concepts and will be used when theoretical distinctions are necessary. Lexical item(s) (or sometimes vocabulary items or simply items) is a useful and fairly neutral hold-all term which captures and, to some extend, helps to overcome instability in the term word, especially when it become limited by orthography. … One distinction which the above discussion clearly necessitates is that between grammatical words and lexical words. The former comprises a small and finite class of words which includes pronouns (I, you, me), articles (the, a), auxiliary verbs (must, could, shall), prepositions (in, on, with, by) and conjunctions (and, but). “Grammatical words like this are also variously known as 'functional words', 'functors', 'empty words'. Lexical words, on the other hand - which are also variously known as 'full words' or 'content words' - include nouns (man, cat), adjectives (large, beautiful), verbs (find, wish) and adverbs (brightly, luckily). They carry a higher information content and, as we have seen, are syntactically structure by the grammatical words. Also, while there are a finite number of grammatical words, there is a potentially unlimited number of lexical words. .. But grammatical words remain generally more immutable. This gives some obvious ground, therefore, for linguists to be able to refer to lexical words as an open class of words while grammatical words constitute a closed class. … Finally, we should note that the term word has occurred again. Here it is used informally but also because lexical 'word' and grammatical 'word' are key terms and are extensively employed in the literature. But they are reproduced here with an awareness of the theoretical importance of the notion of lexeme. In fact, the distinction drawn above between lexemes and word-forms enables an important theoretical point to be made concerning grammatical and lexical 'words': there is a regular co-occurrence between a grammatical words and its lexeme; but lexical words take on many different forms. For example, different lexical word-forms 'sing', 'sang', 'signs', 'singing', 'sung', are realized by a single lexeme SING. But a grammatical word will normally have a single word-form realized by a lexeme. Thus, the lexemes BY and OF have 'by' and 'of' as their word-forms.