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basic function words

about function words

English words can be divided into two groups: function words and content words.

Content words are words whose meaning can be found in a dictionary. "Table," "run," and "flat" are examples of content words.

Function words are words that are used to join content words together into grammatical sentences. They do not have a "dictionary meaning"; instead they have a "grammatical function." Their meaning is better explained in a grammar book or a language class than in a dictionary.

Four of the seven main English "word classes" contain only function words:

- articles (and other noun introducers)
- pronouns
- prepositions
- conjunctions

In addition, two other word classes — verbs and adverbs — contain groups of function words:

- the auxiliary verbs "be," and "have," which are used to form verb tenses
- the modal auxiliary verbs such as "must," and "can"
- adverbs such as "however," and "then" ("sentence connectors" or "conjuncts")
- adverbial particles used in forming "phrasal verbs"

(Function words are sometimes called "grammatical words" and content words are sometimes called "lexical words.")

From the point of view of ESL instruction it would be perhaps a good idea to regard some "frequency" adverbs as function words. Certainly the basic ones seem to be very closely connected to grammatical structures. However, I have not included any frequency adverbs in the function word list.

Because of the importance and the "grammatical complexity" of phrasal verbs it makes sense to regard the particles used in forming these verbs as function words. Another reason for doing so is the fact that most of these particles — words such as "up" and "off" — are also prepositions and therefore already on the function word list. (In fact the only particle on the function word list which is not also a preposition is the word "away.")

fl (06.11.10)