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What Is Functional Grammar?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Functional Grammar is a linguistic theory first proposed in the 1970s by a Dutch linguist named Simon Dik. It was renamed Functional Discourse Grammar in the 1990s, but the theory can go by either name. This theory is called functional because it states that all constituents, whether affixes, words, phrases, or sentences, have semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic functions. Functional grammarians can analyze linguistic utterances as pragmatic, semantic, morphosyntactic, or phonological.

Several linguistic theories are also known as functional grammars, as opposed to formal grammars. The most famous of these is Systemic Functional Grammar, which was first published by British linguist Michael Halliday in 1961. Other functional grammars include Danish Functional Linguistics, lexical functional grammar, and Role and Reference Grammar. These should not be confused with the theory of Functional Grammar as described by Dik while he held the General Linguistics chair at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands from 1969 to 1994.

According to Dik’s Functional Grammar, each constituent has a semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic function. Semantic function refers to the role participants play in the sentence’s action, such as agent or recipient. The various perspectives, such as subject or object, are analyzed as the syntactic function. Pragmatic function concerns the meaning of the constituent in reference to its context.

Conceptual, grammatical, contextual, and output components are present in each linguistic utterance. The conceptual component is the idea that the speaker wants to communicate to his or her audience. A concept to share must come first, or no linguistic utterance will be made.

In the grammatical component, the concept is formed into words through four steps. First, the words are constructed on an interpersonal level, taking into account the context, through pragmatics. Second, each word and phrase is checked for meaning at the representational level during the semantic step. On the third level, the morphosyntactic step, the syntax and morphology are taken into account. Lastly, the phonological level considers the sound of a linguistic utterance.

The contextual component is the portion of the utterance which can only be understood in reference to what has already been shared in the conversation or to a shared knowledge of the environment. All pronouns are part of the contextual component because they require knowledge of an earlier antecedent. The last component of Functional Grammar is the output component, in which all the other pieces come together as a linguistic utterance, whether spoken, written, or signed.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1006612 — On Apr 13, 2022

Functional Grammar was first developed by Hallyday in the 1960'.

C.f. An Introduction to Functional Grammar.

By MrMoody — On Jul 27, 2011

@David09 - Yeah, this introduction to grammar form and function remind me of good old sentence diagramming, back in my day.

While, like you, I don’t fully understand the difference between functional grammar and regular grammar, I do know that in sentence diagramming you break sentences up to find up what the different parts of it mean.

I think the only difference is that with regular grammar, each chunk doesn’t stand on its own for meaning. What I get from the article is that in functional grammar the pieces of each sentence have their own meanings or functions.

By David09 — On Jul 26, 2011

This introduction to functional grammar is a good start, but the concept as a whole is a little abstract.

I vaguely remember hearing about functional grammar in computer science classes. That’s because these concepts are referred to in Artificial Intelligence research.

If you talk to a computer, it’s less concerned with formal grammar than it is with trying to figure out the context of what you’re saying and what the words mean. I don’t recall all that AI research does with functional grammar, but it is a big part.

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