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Content and Function Words

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Content Words vs. Function Words

Each word in English belongs to one of the eight parts of speech. Each word in English is also either a content word or a function word. Let's think about what these two types mean:

Content = information, meaning
Function = necessary words for grammar

In other words, content words give us the most important information while function words are used to stitch those words together.

Content Word Types

Content words are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. A noun tells us which object, a verb tells us about the action happening, or the state. Adjectives give us details about objects and people and adverbs tell us how, when or where something is done. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs give us important information required for understanding.

Noun = person, place or thing
Verb = action, state
Adjective = describes an object, person, place or thing
Adverb = tells us how, where or when something happens

Examples:

Nouns:

house
computer
student
lake
Peter
science

Verbs:

enjoy
purchase
visit
understand
believe
look forward to

Adjectives:

heavy
difficult
careful
expensive
soft
fast

Adverbs:

slowly
carefully
sometimes
thoughtfully
often
suddenly

Other Content Words

While nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are the most important content words there are a few other words that are also key to understanding. These include negatives no, not and never, demonstrative pronouns including this, that, these and those, and question words what, where, when, how and why.

Function Word Types

Function words help us connect important information. Function words are important for understanding, but they add little in meaning beyond defining the relationship between two words. Function words include: auxiliary verbs, prepositions, articles, conjunctions and pronouns. Auxiliary verbs are used to establish the tense, prepositions show relationships in time and space, articles show us something that is specific or one of many, and pronouns refer to other nouns.

Auxiliary verbs = do, be, have - help with conjugation of tense
Prepositions = show relationships in time and space
Articles = used to indicate specific or non-specific nouns
Conjunctions = words that connect
Pronouns - refer to other nouns

Examples:

Auxiliary Verbs:

do
has
will
is
has been
did

Prepositions:

in
at
through
over
between
under

Articles:

a
an
the

Conjunctions:

and
but
for
so
since
as

Pronouns:

I
you
him
us
ours
she

Why is this Important?

Knowing the difference between content and functions words is important because content words are stressed in conversation in English. Function words are non-stressed. In other words, function words are not emphasized in speech, while content words are highlighted. Knowing the difference between content and function words can help you in understanding, and, most importantly, in pronunciation skills.

Exercise:

Decide which words are function and content words in the following sentences.

  • Mary has lived in England for ten years.
  • He's going to fly to Chicago next week.
  • I don't understand this chapter of the book.
  • The children will be swimming in the ocean this time next week.
  • John had eaten lunch before his colleague arrived.
  • The best time to study is early in the morning or late in the evening.
  • The trees along the river are beginning to blossom.
  • Our friends called us yesterday and asked if we'd like to visit them next month.
  • You'll be happy to know that she's decided to take the position.
  • I won't give away your secret.

Check your answers below:

Exercise Answers

Content words are in bold.

  • Mary has lived in England for ten years.
  • He's going to fly to Chicago next week.
  • I don't understand this chapter of the book.
  • The children will be swimming in the ocean at five o'clock.
  • John had eaten lunch before his colleague arrived.
  • The best time to study is early in the morning or late in the evening.
  • The trees along the river are beginning to blossom.
  • Our friends called us yesterday and asked if we'd like to visit them next month.
  • You'll be happy to know that she's decided to take the position.
  • I won't give away your secret.

Test your understanding of content words and function words with this content and function word quiz.

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