On the Roles of Function Words

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On the Roles of function words

Abstract Different function words play different grammatical roles, have different distributions, have different kinds of meanings, and have different phonological forms. This paper mainly deals with the roles of function words in reading and the psychological function of function words. Key words: function words; function words in reading; psychological function;

I. Definition of Function Words
Function words (or grammatical words or synsemantic words or structure-class words) are words that have little lexical meaning or have ambiguous meaning, but instead serve to express grammatical relationships with other words within a sentence, or specify the attitude or mood of the speaker. They signal the structural relationships that words have to one another and are the glue that holds sentences together. Thus, they serve as important elements to the structures of sentences. In other words, they are the glue that holds content words together and include such words as pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs. They are high frequency "humble servants" (Francis 1958:231) that, at least in speaking and writing, appear to be a crucial part of language.

II. The Roles of Function Words
2.1 The Role of Function Words in Reading
There may be some question as to how crucial function words are in language skills that do not require production, i.e., listening and reading. Ulijn, believing that content words are salient carriers of conceptual information, states that it is "more important to know all kinds of conceptual content words rather than syntactic function words"(1978:5). Consequently, he believes that a reading grammar can be more limited than a speaking or writing grammar. Bolinger refers to the "subordinate role of grammar" and states that "the most important thing is to get the words in"(1973:81). Indeed, in notetaking most people seem to omit many function words in an effort to get the message down in the briefest possible way. Likewise road signs, newspaper headlines and telegrams often eliminate function words for the sake of brevity without sacrificing comprehensibility. Hatch (1979:137) states, "if the real world, we can make fairly successful guesses about what we read without always paying attention to the syntax." since most function words make more of a syntactic than a lexical contribution to an utterance or stretch of discourse, whether written or spoken, Hatch's statement implies that grammatical words are not essential in reading comprehension. For years the most popular language teaching methodologies stressed mastery of the structure of language at the expense of vocabulary enrichment. A common belief was that once the skeleton was intact, meat could be put on the bones later on. However, the current rising popularity of semantically based rather than grammar-based syllabus tends to downplay the importance of syntax and morphology in language teaching and is restoring the importance of vocabulary. The emphasis is on the message rather than its form. In fact, there is evidence (Sachs 1967, Bransford and Franks 1971) that humans comprehend linguistic material in terms of meaning rather than form. They remember ideas and quickly forget the exact form the ideas originally packaged in. One must remember, however, that these studies deal with information storage and not with the pre-storage process of first extracting meaning in order to be able to store it. Can we get the message and thus extract the meaning for storage purposes without the help of syntax and morphology? In other words, just how crucial to comprehension are the links that hold the message together? Despite Bolinger's comments that in most languages more grammatical relations are "inferred from covert semantic affinities than are overtly specified." (1973:82), Green(1979) has demonstrated the usefulness of "marker elements." In Green's study, miniature artificial...
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