Form and function

A useful distinction in grammar is that of form and function. Grammatical form is concerned with the description of linguistic units in terms of what they are, and grammatical function is concerned with the description of what these linguistic units do. Note that we use capital letters at the beginning of function labels.


Understanding the way that form and function relate to one another has important implications for text production and comprehension, and enables students to more accurately discuss how grammatical structure relates to meaning.

Table 1: form and function

 Here are the linguistic units relevant to the form and function level (note that we use capital letters at the beginning of function labels):

 Form Function

 Word classes

  • noun, adjective, verb, adverb, determiner, pronoun, conjunction, preposition


  • noun phrase, adjective phrase, adverb phrase, preposition phrase


  • main clause, subordinate clause, relative clause







It may be useful to revisit the relevant pages on word classes, phrases, clauses and function labels if you need to.

Let's see how form-function operates in language. Consider the following two sentences:

  1. The boy kissed the girl.
  2. The girl kissed the boy.

In (1), the boy is doing the kissing, meaning it is the Subject; whereas in (2), the boy is being kissed, meaning it is the Object.

But the boy is a noun phrase in both examples.

We can use a table to show the form/function interface more clearly:

FORM main clause
noun phrase   noun phrase
determiner noun verb determiner noun
  the boy kissed the girl
FUNCTION Subject Predicator Object

In summary, the function labels of Subject, Object and Adverbial can be 'filled' by various different forms, as indicated in the table:

Function …can be a: Example
Subject noun Sylvia loves doughnuts.
pronoun She is tired.
noun phrase The washing machine is broken.
Object noun Eva loves linguistics.
pronoun I want it.
noun phrase She smashed my new phone.
Adverbial adverb Suddenly, the elephants continued on their way
adverb phrase Very suddenly, the elephants continued on their way.
preposition phrase In the morning, the elephants continued on their way.
noun phrase The next day, the elephants continued on their way.
subordinate clause When they had eaten, the elephants continued on their way.

You may think of other forms that can function as Subject and Object. 

If you want to read more about form and function, have a look at these pages on Bas Aarts' blog:

In the activity, students are asked to work out the form and function labels of a list of given sentences.

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