Content and Function Words

Jigsaw pieces bridging the gap
Andy Roberts/Getty Images

Each word in English belongs to one of the eight parts of speech. Each word is also either a content word or a function word. Let's think about what these two types mean:

Content Words vs. Function Words

  • Content = information, meaning
  • Function = necessary words for grammar

In other words, content words give us the most important information while function words are used to stitch those words together.

Content Word Types

Content words are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. A noun tells us which object, a verb tells us about the action happening, or the state. Adjectives give us details about objects and people and adverbs tell us how, when or where something is done. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs give us important information required for understanding.

  • Noun = person, place or thing
  • Verb = action, state
  • Adjective = describes an object, person, place or thing
  • Adverb = tells us how, where or when something happens

Examples:

NounsVerbs
houseenjoy
computerpurchase
studentvisit
lakeunderstand
Peterbelieve
sciencelook forward to

 

AdjectivesAdverbs
heavyslowly
difficultcarefully
carefulsometimes
expensivethoughtfully
softoften
fastsuddenly

Other Content Words

While nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are the most important content words, there are a few other words that are also key to understanding.

These include negatives like no, not and never; demonstrative pronouns including this, that, these and those; and question words like what, where, when, how and why.

Function Word Types

Function words help us connect important information. Function words are important for understanding, but they add little meaning beyond defining the relationship between two words.

Function words include auxiliary verbs, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and pronouns. Auxiliary verbs are used to establish the tense, prepositions show relationships in time and space, articles show us something that is specific or one of many, and pronouns refer to other nouns.

  • Auxiliary verbs = do, be, have (help with conjugation of tense)
  • Prepositions = show relationships in time and space
  • Articles = used to indicate specific or non-specific nouns
  • Conjunctions = words that connect
  • Pronouns = refer to other nouns

Examples:

Auxiliary VerbsPrepositions
doin
has

at

willthough
isover
has beenbetween
didunder

 

ArticlesConjunctionsPronouns
aandI
anbutyou
theforhim
 sous
 sinceours
 asshe

Knowing the difference between content and functions words is important because content words are stressed in conversation in English. Function words are non-stressed. In other words, function words are not emphasized in speech, while content words are highlighted. Knowing the difference between content and function words can help you in understanding, and, most importantly, in pronunciation skills.

Exercise

Decide which words are function and content words in the following sentences.

  1. Mary has lived in England for ten years.
  1. He's going to fly to Chicago next week.
  2. I don't understand this chapter of the book.
  3. The children will be swimming in the ocean this time next week.
  4. John had eaten lunch before his colleague arrived.
  5. The best time to study is early in the morning or late in the evening.
  6. The trees along the river are beginning to blossom.
  7. Our friends called us yesterday and asked if we'd like to visit them next month.
  8. You'll be happy to know that she's decided to take the position.
  9. I won't give away your secret.

Check your answers below:

Exercise Answers

Content words are in bold.

  1. Mary has lived in England for ten years.
  2. He's going to fly to Chicago next week.
  3. I don't understand this chapter of the book.
  4. The children will be swimming in the ocean at five o'clock.
  5. John had eaten lunch before his colleague arrived.
  6. The best time to study is early in the morning or late in the evening.
  1. The trees along the river are beginning to blossom.
  2. Our friends called us yesterday and asked if we'd like to visit them next month.
  3. You'll be happy to know that she's decided to take the position.
  4. I won't give away your secret.