Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 03-02: Function Slots


chapter 3: function slots

When analyzing grammar in this textbook, understanding the difference between FORM and FUNCTION is one of the keys to successful analysis of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences in their context:
  • FORM refers to the name of a thing (along with its definition) 
  • FUNCTION refers to how a thing is acting or operating in a particular context.
To begin, our language can be seen as layers upon layers,  and we can analyze our language from a variety of perspectives, for a  variety of reasons. So the first point to remember is that you can  identify, or name, a FORM at the word level, at the phrase level, and at  the clause level. Similarly, you can also analyze how each FORM is  FUNCTIONING in the context of a sentence (or passage). We will discuss this in more detail shortly when we describe FUNCTION SLOTS.
In summary, FORM names things at the WORD  level (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, relative, etc.), at the PHRASE level (main verb phrase, prepositional phrase, present participle phrase,  past participle phrase, gerund phrase, infinitive phrase, etc.), and at the CLAUSE level (independent clause, dependent clause, subordinate clause, relative clause, nominal clause, etc.). There are lots of FORMS that you will be expected to identify, but a finite  number of FUNCTIONS, and a finite number of ways that forms can work together.
In fact, there are only four (4) FUNCTIONS: 
  1. nominal – a noun or any group of words that can substitute for a noun (word, phrase, or clause) and serve nominal functions. In other words, they can do anything that a noun can do, including filling any of the common nominal slots in a sentence (subject, direct object, subject complement, or object of the preposition most commonly).
  2. adjectival – an adjective or any group of words that can substitute for an adjective (word, phrase, or clause) and perform adjectival functions. In other words, they can do anything that an adjective can do (modify nouns or nominals most commonly).
  3. adverbial – an adverb or any group of words that can substitute for an adverb (word, phrase, or clause) and perform adverbial functions. In other words, they can do anything that an adverb can do.
  4. main verb phrase (verbal) – the main verb of a clause plus its auxiliary or helping verbs in an unchanging order.
 In most cases, FORMS will only take one of the four FUNCTIONS listed above. As we will discuss throughout future chapters, a form will generally function the same way every time, whether we analyze at the word level, the phrase level, or the clause level. But our language is complex so it is important to remember that while some FORMS can only FUNCTION in certain ways, other FORMS can FUNCTION in multiple ways. For example, at the word level, structure-class words can only function as themselves (a definite article can only function as a  definite article, a preposition can only function as a preposition, etc.), and at the clause level, an independent clause can only function as an independent clause.
But phrases and form-class words can often function differently from their form. For example, in Chapter 2 we described the FUNCTION SLOTS of one form of a noun phrase:

This means that an adjectival can appear before and modify a noun. But another noun can fit into the adjectival function slot, such as the noun phrase BASEBALL BAT. If we analyze at the word level, the form of BASEBALL is a noun, but in this noun phrase its function is adjectival to modify BAT.

But there are other nominal FUNCTION SLOTS that we may need to account for in analyzing our language, and these also appear in consistent places:

Object of the preposition – a preposition MUST be followed by a nominal object of the preposition (word, phrase, or clause):
Appositive – can precede, but generally follows directly after and renames another noun:

In many cases, the nominal appositive will take the form of a NOMINAL THAT-CLAUSE. And like these nominal function slots, an adjectival modifier will normally appear in specific places. In other words, since an adjectival modifies a nominal, it will normally appear either directly preceding or directly following the nominal that it is modifying. When analyzing for adjectivals, be careful not to stray too far from identifying the nominal that it is modifying. If you have to stray too far away, then what you are trying to identify might not be an adjectival.

When analyzing for nominals or adjectivals, the most effective test is the “substitution” test. If you can replace the questionable phrase (or clause) with the word “SOMETHING,“ you can normally argue that it is functioning nominally. It’s not quite as accurate for adjectivals, but you can try substituting the questionable phrase (or clause) with a single prototypical adjective. If you can do this, then you can assume that it is occupying an adjectival FUNCTION SLOT.

Finally, adverbial modifiers are almost always optional and can show up (or not) just about anywhere, although their FUNCTION SLOTS will appear most often at the beginning or the end of a clause or sentence. The two best tests for adverbials are DELETION and/or MOVEMENT. In other words, if you can delete the questionable phrase (or clause) and the clause or sentence still makes sense and retains the same basic meaning, then it is probably an adverbial. Likewise, if you can move the questionable phrase (or clause) to different parts of the clause/sentence it is in and the clause/sentence still makes sense, and retains the same basic meaning, then it is probably an adverbial.

In most cases, function slots will appear in consistent places in and around clauses (nominal slot – subject + MVP slot – main verb phrase). The simple graphic below represents ways that different FUNCTION SLOTS might fit together. Finally, the most important thing to remember is that a NOMINAL slot, an ADJECTIVAL slot, and an ADVERBIAL slot can each be filled by a word, a phrase, or a clause. The MVP slot can only be filled by a Main Verb Phrase.

We will explore examples for how this occurs in much more detail throughout the rest of this book.