Literacy Shorts: Function Words

Function words, sometimes called grammatical words, are the words in our language that make little sense by themselves; they’re the ones that are easily overlooked, the ones we tend to omit when analysing poetry or passages from a novel.  Have a look at the list below where I’ve included a selection (22 out of the 300 or so in the English language).

  • Of, at, in, between, above, below (prepositions)
  • He, she, me, they, it (pronouns)
  • The, a, much, either (determiners)
  • And, or, when, while (conjunctions)
  • Be, do, have (auxiliary verbs)

Function words, whilst seemingly insignificant from a literary perspective, are in fact just as important as the content words we tend to focus most of our energies on.  The passage below, taken from Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan, helps to illustrate this:

I had tried to match hers, but all that sincerity would permit me were the facts, and they seemed miraculous to me: a beautiful woman loved and wanted to be loved by a large, clumsy, balding fellow who could hardly believe his luck.

Here, the narrator Joe Rose is reflecting on his good fortune: Clarissa Mellon – a beautiful woman­ – loves him and wants to be loved by him.  Result!  He thinks about his inability to match the ‘passionately abstract’ quality of her love letters and accepts that he is fundamentally different from her – more rational and precise, less romantic.  Ordinarily, in an English lesson, it would be logical to explore how Joe describes himself by selecting a range of the main content words.  For example, the adjectives large, clumsy and balding reveal a great deal about his self-perception.  However, it would be equally as worthwhile to also focus on one of the function words in the second clause of the sentence.

In particular, the determiner a, which conveys very little meaning on its own, is actually pretty important when placed within the context of the sentence.  It helps to create the impression that Joe is looking at himself and Clarissa from afar, as if they are two strangers – and this is really significant.  Despite the evidently light-hearted tone adopted by Joe, he appears to be genuinely trying to understand the dynamics of his relationship with Clarissa.  It’s as if he is a fascinated observer.  By shifting the narrative perspective in this distinctive way, McEwan is able to consolidate what we already know about Joe: he is a scientist whose job it is to objectively analyse and evaluate the world around him.  Later in the novel, Clarissa even teases Joe affectionately by calling him ‘the rationalist’.

If the function word a was taken away and replaced with a substitute – the function word the (a determiner) – meaning in the sentence would subtly change:

I had tried to match hers, but all that sincerity would permit me were the facts, and they seemed miraculous to me: the beautiful woman loved and wanted to be loved by the large, clumsy, balding fellow who could hardly believe his luck.

Here, the glorious sense of serendipity that brought Joe and Clarissa together in the first place, which Joe marvels at and feels fortunate to benefit from, is diminished by the impression of certainty and control conveyed by the determiner the which, unlike the determiner a chosen by McEwan in the original, is  specific and unambiguous.

So, to briefly conclude…  Clearly, function words are functional: they help to order and clarify.  However, they’re so much more than syntactical glue.  As I hope this brief example from Enduring Love illustrates, they also actively help to shape meaning – and it’s for this reason that it’s worth, I think, giving them as much attention in English lessons as all the other stuff.

Thanks for reading –

Doug

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