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The Form-Function Method: Teaching Grammar with Grammatical Form and Grammatical Function

The Form-Function Method: Teaching Grammar with Grammatical Form and Grammatical Function

Grammar is an area of the language arts that teachers often find difficult to teach and students likewise find difficult to learn. The Form-Function Method for teaching grammar, however, simplifies the subject by breaking down grammar into the two most basic linguistic elements: grammatical form and grammatical function. The Form-Function Method allows for the study of the grammar of any language.

Tenets of the Form-Function Method

The Form-Function Method for teaching grammar is based on four principal tenets:

  • Languages contain a finite number of grammatical forms.
  • Languages contain a finite number of grammatical functions.
  • Grammatical forms perform one or more grammatical functions.
  • Grammatical functions can be performed by one or more grammatical forms.

Begin using the Form-Function Method to study grammar by learning the four tenets of the method. Subsequent grammar lessons will elaborate on each tenet.

Grammatical Form

After describing the theory behind the Form-Function Method for teaching grammar, define and explain grammatical form. All languages contain a finite number of language-specific grammatical forms. Grammatical form can be described as “what a word, phrase, or clause looks like.” Traditional grammars refer to grammatical forms as “parts of speech.” For example, the grammatical form of the word dog is noun, of the word bite is verb, and of the word tiny is adjective.

Grammatical form also includes the internal structure of words, phrases, and clauses. Internal structure can be described as the possible inflections of words and the possible syntax of phrases and clauses. For example, prototypical nouns can be marked as singular (dog) or plural (dogs) and marked for the possessive (dog’s and dogs’). Prototypical adjective phrases consist of an adjective (small), an adjective and an adverb phrase (very small), or an adjective and a prepositional phrase (small at the waist).

Take care not to introduce grammatical function while exploring grammatical form.

Grammatical Forms in English

After introducing the concept of grammatical form, study the nine grammatical forms in English. The English language contains nine basic grammatical forms:

Each grammatical form can be the topic of an individual lesson. For example, the form of the adjective in English includes taking comparative (bigger and more beautiful) and superlative (biggest and most beautiful).

Grammatical Function

After studying grammatical form, define and explain the concept of grammatical function. All languages contain a finite number of language-specific grammatical functions. Traditional grammars do not have a term for grammatical function, which can be described as “what a word, phrase, or clause does.” For example, the noun phrase the kitten in the clause the kitten is drinking the milk functions as the subject and the noun phrase the milk functions as the direct object. Again take care not to discuss grammatical form while introducing grammatical function. Maintain the separation between the two linguistic concepts because grammatical form does not equal grammatical function.

Grammatical Functions in English

After introducing the concept of grammatical function, study the grammatical functions specific to English. The English language contains approximately thirty-two grammatical functions, with the caveat that one count may differ from the count of other grammarians:

Note that different grammars give the same grammatical functions different names. For example, the subject complement in English is often divided into two categories (predicate nominative and predicate adjective) depending on the form of the word or phrase performing the function. Each grammatical function can be the topic of an individual lesson, or similar functions can be included in the same lesson. For example, the function of grammatical subject in English can be performed by noun phrases, prepositional phrases, verb phrases, and noun clauses.

Using Form-Function Diagrams to Visualize Grammar

Also called grammar trees, form-function diagrams are useful tools for helping visualize grammar. The form-function grammar diagram is particularly useful in helping separate grammatical form from grammatical function. To create a form-function tree, write a sentence on a piece of paper. Then label all of the grammatical forms above the sentence using vertical lines as connectors. Finally label all of the grammatical functions below the sentence using horizontal lines as connectors. Form-function grammar trees can also be used to diagram words and phrases.

Using Metaphor

I personally have discovered that distinguishing between grammatical form and grammatical function is surprisingly difficult for most grammar students to grasp. In my mind, grammatical form (what a word looks like) is clearly separate from grammatical function (what a word does). Of the nine grammatical forms in the English language, some forms can perform only one function while other forms can perform multiple functions. And, of the thirty-two grammatical functions, some functions can be performed by only one form while other functions can be performed by multiple forms.

Most English teachers love to talk about metaphor. And I think most students at some level can grasp the idea of metaphor. So why not use a metaphor to clarify the difference between grammatical form and grammatical function, looking at people and their occupations in an imaginary world?

First assume that we live in a world in which only two types of people exist: men and women. The concept of two types of people, or forms, is relatively easy to grasp. So, the two forms of people are:

  • Man
  • Woman

But what if, in our metaphorical world, there are only three occupations that people can have. Pretend that the imaginary people can choose to be mothers, fathers, or teachers. These three jobs are the only jobs available. And, since occupations are something people do, we can call these jobs functions. Therefore the three functions of people are:

  • Mother
  • Father
  • Teacher

We now have our two forms (man, woman) and three functions (mother, father, teacher). The forms are what people look like, and the functions are what people do. We can then see which forms can perform which functions and which functions can be performed by which forms.

What functions can the form of man do? Men can be fathers, and men can be teachers. We can thus say that the functions of the form man are father and teacher. Similarly, woman can be mothers, and women can be teachers. The functions of the form woman are therefore mother and teacher.

The idea of only women being mothers and only men being fathers is pretty easy to understand. In our imaginary world, if a man has a child, he is called a father. Similarly, if a woman has a child, she is called a mother. A man cannot be a mother, and a woman cannot be a father.

But what about teacher? Both men and women can be teachers. No rule exists that states only men or only women can be teachers. Thus the function of teacher can be performed by two forms while the functions of mother and father can be performed by only one form each.

To summarize the metaphor:

  • The form “man” can perform two functions: father and teacher.
  • The form “woman” can perform two functions: mother and teacher.
  • The function “mother” can be performed by one form: woman.
  • The function “father can be performed by one form: man.
  • The function “teacher” can be performed by two forms: man and woman.

Applying the Metaphor to Grammar

Now apply the idea of the metaphor of people and occupations to English grammar by looking at two grammatical forms: noun and adjective.

First identify the functions that can be performed by the two forms. Nouns perform eleven main grammatical functions:

  • Noun phrase head
  • Subject
  • Subject complement
  • Direct object
  • Object complement
  • Indirect object
  • Prepositional complement
  • Noun phrase modifier
  • Possessive modifier
  • Appositive
  • Adverbial

Adjectives perform four main grammatical functions:

  • Adjective phrase head
  • Noun phrase modifier
  • Subject complement
  • Object complement

Some of the functions are shared by nouns and adjectives while some of the functions can be formed by only one or the other. For example, the functions that can only be performed by nouns are:

  • Noun phrase head
  • Subject
  • Direct object
  • Indirect object
  • Prepositional complement
  • Possessive modifier
  • Appositive
  • Adverbial

The function that can only be performed by adjectives is:

  • Adjective phrase head

The functions that can be performed by both nouns and adjectives are:

  • Noun phrase modifier
  • Subject complement
  • Object complement

To summarize the functions of nouns and adjectives in English:

  • The form of “noun” can perform eleven functions.
  • The form of “adjective can perform four functions.
  • Eight functions can be performed by only nouns.
  • One function can be performed by only adjectives.
  • Three functions can be performed by both nouns and adjectives.

Hopefully my comparison of people and occupations to grammatical forms and grammatical functions will help grammar students better understand the difference between form and function. The Form-Function Method is a pedagogical strategy that simplifies the teaching of grammar for teachers and the learning of grammar for students. Just remember: form does not equal function, but more than one form can perform the same function, and one function can be performed by more than one form.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Dwyer, Bernard. Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000.

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