According to University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker, “function words” are like fingerprints. We all use them a bit differently, and our style of function-word use reveals our character.
In English, the function words are: prepositions, pronouns, determinatives, auxiliary verbs, coordinators, and subordinators.
Nouns, full verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are “content” words.
The easiest way for beginning composition students to understand what function words are is to think of them as words whose meaning you can’t look up in the dictionary. The meaning of a function word comes largely from the sentence it’s in, or from the surrounding sentences.
Function words largely serve a grammatical purpose in a sentence — some people call them “glue words.”
- pronouns (he, she, it, what, which, that…) (another list)
- determinative (the, a, an)
- auxiliary verbs (do, is, am, have, got…)
- coordinators (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)
- subordinators (although, when, because, ….) (Sierra College list)
- prepositions (in, by, on, beside…)
- nouns (Mercy College, chair, beach, love, grammar…)
- “full” verbs (run, sit, sing, fall…)
- adjectives (blue, tall, sunny, odd…)
- adverbs (slowly, sadly, inquisitively, ostentatiously…)
Another name for the distinction between function words and content words: “closed” and “open” word classes.
Content words are an open class; new content words are invented all the time.
Function words are a closed class; new function words rarely come into existence.
Different people have different styles of function word use. As an example, some people use the pronoun “I” more than others do.
Function words also predict romance.
The study below, from 2010, found that people whose function-word styles were similar were more likely than people whose function-word styles were different to: a) be romantically attracted to each other, and b) stay together.
An excerpt from the study:
Function words, such as pronouns and articles, are generally short, are frequently used, and have little meaning outside the context of a sentence (Chung & Pennebaker, 2007). As a result of these features, function words are processed rapidly and largely nonconsciously when people produce or comprehend language (Segalowitz & Lane, 2004; Van Petten & Kutas, 1991) and require shared social knowledge, or common ground, to be used effectively (Meyer & Bock, 1999). For example, the function words (underlined) in the sentence He placed it on the table make little sense without prior knowledge of the man, the object, and the table in question. Perhaps because of their key role in social cognition, function words are robust markers of a variety of individual differences and social behaviors, ranging from leadership style to honesty (Hancock, Curry, Goorha, & Woodworth, 2008; Slatcher, Chung, Pennebaker, & Stone, 2007; Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010).
Language Style Matching Predicts Relationship Initiation and Stability by Molly E. Ireland, Richard B. Slatcher, Paul W. Eastwick, Lauren E. Scissors, Eli J. Finkel, and James W. Pennebaker Psychological Science 2010
- Function words are usually short
- Function words are used frequently
- Function words have little meaning outside a sentence (or outside the surrounding sentences in a text)
- Function words are processed very quickly by the brain
- Function words are processed mostly outside of conscious awareness (for example, people have no idea, consciously, how often they use the pronoun “I”)
- Function words require that speakers (or writers & readers) possess shared social knowledge in order to know what the function word means (If I say to you, “Give this book to her,” you and I both have to know what person I mean by ‘her.’
- Function words reveal numerous personality differences and social behaviors, including leadership traits and honesty
- In this study of speed dating transcripts, people whose function word use was similar were more likely to be romantically attracted to each other than people whose styles were dissimilar
- AND they were more likely to still be together 3 months later