Function Words

These are closed class words – we don’t invent new ones. They are grammatical/functional rather than lexical. If they are deleted from a passage, it often still makes sense. They are usually learnt by babies later than lexical words, as their meaning is more abstract.

  • You should be aware that word class for some of these isn’t fixed – the same word can be a preposition, an adverbial or a conjunction under different circumstances. Always consider what the word is doing in the sentence you are examining, e.g.:
  • I haven’t eaten since lunchtime (prep)
  • I ate at lunchtime and haven’t eaten since (adv)
  • I haven’t eaten since Sue arrived (sub conj)
  • Since the cupboard is bare, I haven’t eaten (sub conj) (same function as last sentence, but different meaning)


all tend to precede nouns

  • definite article – THE – refers to a specific thing
  • indefinite article – A/AN – refers to one of many things
  • possessive determiner – MY/HIS/THEIR – indicates whose
  • demonstratives – THIS/THAT/THESE/THOSE – defines which
  • quantifiers – may be actual numbers (cardinal or ordinal) – ONE, TWO, THIRD – or indefinite – SEVERAL, MANY


link grammatical units together

  • co-ordinating conjunctions – AND, OR, BUT – join equally weighted clauses
  • subordinating conjunctions – e.g. BECAUSE, WHEN, UNTIL – join dependent/subordinate clauses to main/independent clauses

Auxiliary Verbs

support the main verb in constructing tense/aspect – if there is more than one verb in a verb phrase, one will be an auxiliary

  • to BE, e.g. I am leaving, it is recognised
  • to HAVE, e.g. she has left, we had eaten
  • to DO, e.g. do you want to go?; I didn’t find it
  • modal auxiliaries: should, shall, would, will, must, may, might, could, can


express a relationship between things; can be a word or a phrase; usually followed by noun or noun phrase

  • of place: UNDER, BEFORE (in a sequence), BETWEEN
  • of time: BEFORE, AFTER, DURING
  • of person or topic: CONCERNING, ABOUT
  • of agent: BY, BY MEANS OF
  • of comparison: LIKE, SIMILAR TO