Definition and Examples of Function Words in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

function words quote with glue cap

In English grammar, a function word is a word that expresses a grammatical or structural relationship with other words in a sentence.

In contrast to a content word, a function word has little or no meaningful content. Nonetheless, as Ammon Shea points out, "the fact that a word does not have a readily identifiable meaning does not mean that it serves no purpose" (Bad English, 2014)

Function words are also known as grammatical words, grammatical functors, grammatical morphemes, function morphemes, form words, and empty words.

Function words include determiners (for example, the, that), conjunctions (and, but), prepositions (in, of), pronouns (she, they), auxiliary verbs (be, have), modals (may, could), and quantifiers (some, both).

Examples and Observations

  • "[F]unction words account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60 percent of the words you use."

    (James W. Pennebaker, The Secret Life of Pronouns. Bloomsbury Press, 2011)
  • Function Words vs. Content Words
    "In contrast to content words, function words, such as determiners and auxiliary verbs, do not have 'contentful' meanings; rather, they are defined in terms of their use, or function. For example, the meaning of the auxiliary verb is in Leo is running is difficult to define, but we can say that the function of the auxiliary verb is, in this case, is to express present tense (to see this, compare Leo was running). Function words are closed class words. Though we freely add new members to open classes of words, we don't coin new determiners or conjunctions, nor do we come up with new pronouns, modal verbs, or auxiliary verbs (have, be, and do)."

    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • "The odor of fish hung thick in the air."

    (Jack Driscoll, Wanting Only to Be Heard. University of Massachusetts Press, 1995)
  • "Most people with low self-esteem have earned it."

    (George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty. Hyperion, 2001)
  • "Liberal and conservative have lost their meaning in America. I represent the distracted center."

    (Jon Stewart)
  • "Every book is a children's book if the kid  can read."

    (Mitch Hedberg)
  • Function Words as Thumbtacks
    "Function words are like thumbtacks. We don't notice thumbtacks; we look at the calendar or the poster they are holding up. If we were to take the tacks away, the calendar and the poster would fall down. Likewise, if we took the function words out of speech, it would be hard to figure out what was going on. Took function words speech hard figure going on*. That is what the previous sentence would look like if we took out all of the function words."

    (Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Anne Fudeman, What Is Morphology? Wiley-Blackwell, 2005)
  • Function Words in "Jabberwocky"
    "Function words are typically little words, and they signal relations between parts of sentences, or something about the pragmatic import of a sentence, e.g. whether it is a question. Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' poem illustrates the distinction well​
    `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.
    In this poem, all the made-up words are content words; all the others are function words."

    (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Language. Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Function Words in Speech
    "Most monosyllabic function words, unlike content words, are unstressed . . .. Prepositions, conjunctions, and articles are regularly unstressed, and auxiliary verbs and adverbs are usually unstressed--though note that auxiliaries are often used for emphasis, in which case they are stressed: "I did pay the bills."

    (Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm. Cambridge University Press, 1995)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Function Words in English." ThoughtCo, Mar. 16, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, March 16). Definition and Examples of Function Words in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Function Words in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 21, 2018).