Definition and Examples of Function Words in English

Including Lists of Different Types of Function Words

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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 structure wordsgrammatical words, grammatical functors, grammatical morphemes, function morphemes, form words, and empty words.

 According to James Pennebaker in "The Secret Life of Pronouns," "function words account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60 percent of the words you use."

Content Words vs. Function Words

Function words include determinersconjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, modals, qualifiers, and question words. Content words are words with specific meanings, such as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and main verbs (those without helping verbs). In the sentence, "The sly brown fox jumped gracefully over the lazy dog and cat," the content words are: fox, dog, and cat (nouns); sly, brown, and lazy (adjectives); gracefully (adverb); and jumped (main verb). Function words include: the (determiner), over (preposition), and and (conjunction). Even though the function words don't have concrete meanings, sentences would make a lot less sense without them.

Determiners

Determiners are words such as articles (the, a), possessive pronouns (their, your), quantifiers (much), demonstratives (that, those), and numbers.

They function like adjectives to modify nouns and go in front of a noun to show the reader whether the noun is specific or general, such as in "that coat" (specific) vs. "a coat" (general). 

  • Articles: a, an, the
  • Demonstratives: that, this, those, these,
  • Possessive pronouns: my, your, their, our, ours, whose, his, hers, its, which 
  • Quantifiers: some, both, most, many, a few, a lot of, any, much, a little, enough, several, none, all

Conjunctions

Conjunctions connect parts of a sentence, such as items in a list, two separate sentences, or clauses and phrases to a sentence. In the previous sentence, the conjunctions are or and and.

  • Conjunctions: and, but, for, yet, neither, or, so, when, although, however, as, because, before 

Prepositions

Prepositions begin prepositional phrases, which contain nouns and other modifiers. Prepositions function to give more information about nouns. In the phrase "the river that flows through the woods." The prepositional phrase is "through the woods," and the preposition is "through."

  • Prepositions: in, of, between, on, with, by, at, without, through, over, across, around, into, within

Pronouns

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. Their antecedent needs to be clear, or your reader will be confused. Take "It's so difficult" as an example. Without context, the reader has no idea what "it" refers to. In context, "Oh my gosh, this grammar lesson," he said. "It's so difficult," the reader easily knows that it refers to the lesson, which is its noun antecedent.

  • Pronouns: she, they, he, it, him, her, you, me, anybody, somebody, someone, anyone

    Auxilary Verbs

    Auxiliary verbs are also called helping verbs. They pair with a main verb to change tense, such as when you want to express something in present continuous tense (I am walking), past perfect tense (I had walked), or future tense (I am going to walk there). 

    • Auxilary verbs: be, is, am, are, have, has, do, does, did, get, got, was, were

    Modals

    Modal verbs express condition or possibility. It's not certain that something is going to happen, but it might. For example, in "If I could have gone with you, I would have," modal verbs include could and would.

    • Modals: may, might, can, could, will, would, shall, should

    Qualifiers

    Qualifiers function like adverbs and show the degree of an adjective or verb, but they have no real meaning themselves. In the sample sentence, "I thought that somewhat new dish was pretty darn delicious," the qualifiers are somewhat and pretty.

    • Qualifiers: very, really, quite, somewhat, rather, too, pretty (much)

    Question Words

    It's easy to guess what function that question words have in English. Besides forming questions, they can also appear in statements, such as in "I don't know how in the world that happened," where the question word is how.

    • Question words: how, where, what, when, why, who