What Is a Grammatical Function in English?

Grammatical function is the syntactic role played by a word or phrase in the context of a particular clause or sentence. Sometimes called simply function.

In English, grammatical function is primarily determined by a word's position in a sentence, not by inflection (or word endings).

Examples and Observations

"The five elements of clause structure, namely subject, verb, object, complement, and adverbial, are grammatical functions.

In addition, we distinguish predicator as the function carried by the main verb in a clause, and predicate as the function assigned to the portion of a clause excluding the subject.

"Within phrases, certain types of units can function as modifiers, more specifically as premodifiers or postmodifiers.

"There is no one-to-one correspondence between functions and their possible formal realizations. Thus the functions of subject and direct object are often realized by a noun phrase, but can also be realized by a clause . . .." (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

Linguistic Context and Grammatical Function

"The production and interpretation of an utterance act is anchored to the constitutive parts of language: syntax, morphology, phonology, semantics and pragmatics. While syntax is composed of structural units, for instance constituents in traditional grammar, phrases in functional grammar and generative grammar, groups in systemic functional grammar or constructions in construction grammar, it is the linear ordering of the individual parts within a hierarchically structured sequence which constitutes their grammatical function.

The adverb really, for instance, realizes the grammatical function of a sentence adverbial with wide scope if positioned initially or finally, as is the case in the utterance really, Sarah is sweet. If the adverb really is positioned medially, it is assigned the grammatical function of the adverbial of subjunct with narrow scope, as in Sarah is really sweet.

Or, the proper noun Mary can realize the grammatical function of object in Sally kissed Mary, and it can realize the grammatical function of subject in Mary kissed Sally. Thus, it is not the grammatical construction as such which is assigned a grammatical function. Rather, it is the positioning of a grammatical construction within a hierarchically structured sequence which assigns it a grammatical function." Anita Fetzer, "Contexts in Interaction: Relating Pragmatic Wastebaskets." What Is a Context?: Linguistic Approaches and Challenges, ed. by Rita Finkbeiner, Jörg Meibauer, and Petra B. Schumacher. John Benjamins, 2012)

The Grammatical Functions of Subjects

"The most complex grammatical function is that of subject. Consider the example in (1).

(1) The tigers hunt prey at night.

Tigers precedes the verb. It agrees with the verb in number, as becomes clear when it is made singular: The tiger hunts its prey at night. In the active construction, it is never marked by any preposition. The corresponding full passive clause . . . is Prey is hunted by the tigers at night; in the passive clause, the subject of (1), the tigers, turns up inside the prepositional phrase by the tigers.

"The above criteria—agreement in number with the verb, never being preceded by a preposition, occurring in the by phrase in the passive—are grammatical, and the noun they pick out in a given clause is the grammatical subject of that clause." (Jim Miller, An Introduction to English Syntax.

Edinburgh University Press, 2002)

The Grammatical Functions of Direct Objects and Indirect Objects

"In traditional grammatical descriptions, the grammatical function borne by her in the English example in (41) has sometimes been called the 'indirect object,' and the book has been called the 'direct object':

(41) He gave her a book.

The phrase the book is also traditionally assumed to be the direct object in examples like (42):

(42) He gave a book to her.

The classification of the book as a direct object in both (41) and (42) may have a semantic rather than a syntactic basis: there may be a tendency to assume that the book must bear the same grammatical function in each instance because its semantic role does not change. . . . [T]he LFG view differs: in example (41), the phrase her bears the OBJ function, while in example (42), the phrase a book is the OBJ.

"Within the transformational tradition, evidence for the LFG classification for English came from certain formulations of the rule of passivization, which applies uniformly to 'transform' an object into a subject . . .." Mary Dalrymple, Lexical Functional Grammar. Emerald Group, 2001)