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What is a Functional Shift?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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There can be no doubt that language is a living entity that changes over time. One example of how a language changes is the functional shift. Basically, a functional shift occurs when a word that is already identified and used extensively in one manner begins to acquire a second use that is of a completely different nature in both the spoken and the written word. Here are a couple of examples of how a change in syntax can lead to a functional shifts that over time become acceptable components in the common grammar of the day.

One fairly common occurrence with the event of a functional shift is that a word that is normally identified as a noun beginning to take on usage as a verb, or vice versa. There are a number of examples of this type of functional shift. Commute is only one of many words that can be used as both a verb and a noun today. As a noun, a commute refers to a journey or trip that is taken. As a verb, commute can refer to the act of taking that trip, as well as foregoing something, such as commuting a sentence or an obligation.

A functional shift can also occur when a preposition that is normally used in comparisons begins to find usage in the form of a subordinating conjunction. The word “like” is a classic example of this type of metamorphosis. As a preposition, “like” can be used to compare the action of one thing to another. As an example, “he runs like a horse” helps to compare the running habits of one living entity to the running prowess of a different live animal. At the same time, the word “like” may be used to suggest intent. “He sounds like he means it” carries the same meaning as stating “he sounds as if he means it.”

One of the fascinating things about linguistics in general is that the science of languages is a discipline that is forever evolving. No language has ever remained static for very long. As generations pass, words that once held only one meaning and style of usage in the written and spoken word will begin to take on other applications. The occurrence of the functional shift is recognition of that evolution, and one of the characteristics of a living language that keep our chief means of communication exciting and fresh.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By live2shop — On Jun 20, 2011

The evolution of language is fascinating. One way language can change is by functional shifts. It is amazing how fast it can change, especially with so many technical terms popping up.

For example, "text" has been a noun, now it is also a verb referring to sending short written messages - texting.

The word "good" is a very old word in the English language,but it's used in a little different way today as a part of an expression. We still say, "he's a good boy", but it's becoming popular when you are asked if you want something to drink or whatever, we answer "No thanks,I'm good."

Great subject- great article

By nony — On Jun 19, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - I think that happens when the usage of the term reaches critical mass. I don’t think there is anything more official to it than that. Most dictionaries try to reflect words not only as they are used in the general language canon but also in pop culture, so that the dictionaries are comprehensive reference texts.

To this end, I believe that a linguistic analysis of pop culture terminology reveals a wide variety of changes down through the years, more for figures of speech than anything else. What I still don’t understand is how “fat chance” and “slim chance” can mean the same thing.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jun 19, 2011

@David09 - The question I have is when does a linguistic shift become official? That is to say, when do you look a formal dictionary and find that a noun which has shifted is now a bona fide verb or whatever it is?

By David09 — On Jun 19, 2011

@NathanG - I positively can’t stand the word “like” as it’s used nowadays. This is more than a linguistic shift; it’s a linguistic degradation. Teenagers are especially guilty of misusing this word.

It’s basically a form of filler or padding for pauses in speech, as when they say, “I’m like” and “They’re like,” etc. They also say “I’m all” and “They’re all,” etc., which is supposed to describe a state of mind or something.

The word “goes” is another example where the meaning of a verb-go, in this case-has been transformed into something else. So when a teenager says, “She goes” what she really means is “She says.”

Every time I hear my kids speak this way I try to correct them, but it’s amazing how much this behavior has been ingrained into them. When they try to avoid using these filler words, they don’t know what to say.

By NathanG — On Jun 19, 2011

I think that this is an excellent definition of a functional shift, although I prefer the term lexical shift as the term functional is somewhat broad.

A very popular semantic change example that comes to mind is the word “Google,” which is a noun that describes a popular search engine. However, over time people began to use it as a verb. They would say things like “Google this”-meaning search this online.

The fact that search and Google have become synonymous indicates, I believe, the extent of the search engine’s dominance over the Internet.

Other examples of this include popular nouns like Kleenex and Xerox. People will say “Pass me a Kleenex” when they mean pass me a tissue, or “Xerox this” when they mean make a photocopy.

Again, nothing beats the kind of brand recognition where your product becomes synonymous with a generic verb; I’d say you’ve pretty much arrived.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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