You are on page 1of 2

Grammatical functions Richard Hudson 2007 Words are like little people, and like people, theyre gregarious.

They like to work together in teams where each word plays a distinct role, so grammatical analysis is rather like understanding the dynamics of a group of people. Think of a staff meeting, for example. There are different kinds of people different ages, sexes, qualifications, etc and partly because of these differences, each person plays a different role in the meeting. Likewise in a sentence: there are different kinds of words nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on and they each play a different role in the sentence. The technical term for kinds of words is, of course, word classes, and that for their roles is grammatical functions. Some people think that classifying words is the end of grammatical analysis, but in fact its just the beginning. For any word in a sentence, there are two grammatical questions, not one: What word class does it belong to? What is its grammatical function? These are separate questions, with answers drawn from a separate vocabulary. For word classes we have the familiar parts of speech (noun, verb and so on), but for grammatical functions we use slightly less familiar terms. These include subject and object, but the most basic ones are head and dependent, which only make sense in relation to a phrase. If you understand these three terms, then the rest of syntax is just filling in details. In this technical vocabulary, a phrase is any team of words that collectively express a single meaning. An entire sentence is a phrase, and so is a two word combination such as English teacher. This means that one phrase may be part of another, Chinese-box style. For example, the phrase [about grammar] might be part of a larger phrase [easy books [about grammar]]. (The brackets are a very useful notation for showing phrases, but there are others such as trees and arrow-diagrams.) For beginners, synthesis is easier than analysis, so you and your class can have endless fun building larger and larger phrases. The members of a phrase team contribute to its collective aim in different ways: The head is in charge of the basic meaning and of the external grammatical relations. The dependents help to make the meaning more precise, and only relate grammatically to the head. For example, take [easy books [about grammar]]: The head is books, so easy books about grammar are books, not grammar (or easiness); and grammatically, the phrase relates to other words like a plural noun e.g. we use a plural verb in Easy books about grammar are [not: is] plentiful. Easy is a dependent of books because easy books are books and easy is only related grammatically to books. About is also a dependent of books for the same reasons, but it doubles up as the head of a smaller phrase, [about grammar]. Given these elementary ideas, grammatical functions are reasonably obvious in most phrases, though some phrases are much more challenging.

Functions are far more interesting than classes because you can never simply look them up in a dictionary, so they require a degree of sensitivity to overall sentence structure. In most sentences, each word but one depends on one other word so analysing a sentence requires us to pair the words off as heads and dependents. This often demands careful thought and often reveals ambiguities that we might not otherwise notice: He mended the table in the bathroom. (Where did he mend it? or: Which table?) He put the table in the bathroom. (Why not: Which table?) He mended the leak in the pipe. (Why not: Where did he mend it?) And others, of course, are jokes: Last night I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. What he was doing in my pyjamas Ill never know. (Groucho Marx) A man-eating fish saw a man eating fish, and ate him. And in case youre looking for a practical pay-off, notice the hyphen in the last joke.