While the concept of “a word” is surprisingly difficult to define with any accuracy, it still makes sense to divide that nebulous idea into more concrete and manageable categories. One way of doing that is to split words into content and function words.
The category names themselves already provide a bit of insight into what type of words they contain but you can read below to find a more precise definition for these both content and function words.
As the name says, “content words” are the parts of speech that provide the content for what you want to say. They convey most of the meaning and information you want to relay. The biggest word groups in the category are nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.
Nouns denote people, animals, or things. Verbs refer to activities, actions, or states. Adjectives describe places, people, or other objects and adverbs tell us how, when, and where an action takes place.
So, for example, in the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, there are six content words:
– the nouns “fox” and “dog”
– the verb “jumps”
– the adjectives “quick”, “brown”, and “lazy”
Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are certainly the most common types of content words, but there are a few other important additions to consider: question words (such as “how”, “what”, “where”, etc.), demonstrative pronouns (such as “this”, “these”, “those”, etc.), and negatives (for example, “not”, “no”, “never”, “nowhere”, etc.)
Another name for this category is “open-class words”. That’s because the category is essentially infinite. New words are added to this group all the time.
While content words are the vehicles that carry meaning in any sentence, function words are the glue that helps the sentence stay together. They don’t have a very clear meaning on their own and often they remain unchanging in every sentence.
While they don’t have much of a role to play in adding information, they’re still very important for understanding. The most important function words are articles, conjunctions, pronouns, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs. We use these words to establish tense (auxiliary verbs), define relationships in time and space (prepositions), tie together clauses (conjunctions), replace nouns (pronouns), and fill other important functions.
In our example sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, there are three function words:
– the articles “the”
– the preposition “over”
This group is also called “closed class words” because it consists of a much smaller number of fixed words and new additions are very rare. For example, this is also why it’s been so difficult to find a suitable gender-neutral pronoun in English – because new pronouns are rarely added to a language.
Why it’s important
The main reason why you should know about content and function words is that they can help you become more fluent in a language.
In English, for example, content words are stressed in a sentence, while function words are glossed over. This creates the normal rhythm when speaking English, Understanding the difference between function and content words can help you understand what you need to emphasise in a sentence, leading to much better pronunciation.
Content words carry most of the meaning and information in any sentence: they cover who is doing what, while function words act as glue to hold all the parts together. Knowing the difference between the two word groups is important because it helps you sound much more natural when learning a foreign language.