Forming Sentences from Functional Words

By: Abdul Muth’im*)


For many linguists and language teachers, it is believed that a sentence can only be formed by arranging either wholly content words or the combination of content words and functional words. However, it is never formed by wholly functional words. From the data collected, however, it is found that a sentence may also be formed by combining a series of functional words. This paper tries to show this proposition.

Key words: content words, functional words, sentence


What distinguishes human beings from other living creatures in the world is that their capability in producing sounds is amazing. They can produce unlimited sounds to form thousands of words, and by manipulating the arrangement or order of those words they can build as many sentences as they want to show their anger, their happiness, their disappointment, and the like. They will also be able to produce the same quantity of sentences as manifestation of their thoughts, ideas, wants, desires, and whatever they are named only by manipulating the arrangement of sounds. In shorts, by changing the order of sounds they will be able to produce a very large number of words and by manipulating the arrangement of words they will also be able to form limitless number of sentences.

In lexical study, it is said that a sentence may consist of wholly a combination of content words, as in (John likes tennis), combination of content words and functional words as in ( John is playing tennis), but it is impossible to form sentence only by having functional words. The question is, “Is it really impossible to form sentence only by using functional words?”. This writing wants to prove that forming sentence only by using functional words is possible.

What is word?

Before discussing the possibility of forming sentence by merely using functional words, one question which should be answered first is, “What is meant by word?”.

Actually, there are a lot of definitions about it. Three of them will be presented here. First, the definition given by Hornby, et. al. (1962:1158). According to them “word is sound or combination of sounds (or the written or the printed symbols) used as a unit of language”. Second, the definition given by Richards et al. In their mind, word is defined as “the smallest of the linguistic units which can occur on its own in speech or writing”. Third, the definition given by Crystal (1991:379). In accordance with him, word is understood as “a unit of expression which has universal intuitive recognition by native speakers, in both spoken and written language”.

From the definitions given it can be concluded that word is the smallest unit of language expressed orally or rottenly by the native speakers and recognized by them.

Classification of Words

Though our world is full of words, in general, words are divided into two categories. They are (1) functional word and (2) content word (Mc Millan, 1968). Function words are those that often have little meaning in the dictionary sense but which serve important functions in relating other words in the language to each other. Some of the words that belong to this group are: pronouns, determiners, auxiliary verbs, and so on The latter, content words, on the other hand, refers to noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. They are used to name and describe the infinite number of things, persons, events, and processes that speakers of English want to talk about (Mc Millan, 1968:4).

In different terms, Jackson categorizes words into, (1) open words and (2) closed words. The words are categorized open because new members are being constantly added, as new words are coined in science, technology, or by advertisers or sub-cultures. Examples of this category are: noun, verb, adjective and adverb. The second, they are grouped into closed because the memberships are fixed; it is in general not possible to add new members, such as pronoun, numeral, determiner, preposition, conjunction (1982:61)

In detail Jackson in his book Analyzing English describes each part of the speech as follows:

1) Nouns

Nouns, generally refer to ‘things’ in the broad sense. They also include sub-classes of nouns such as proper and common nouns, concrete and abstract nouns, and countable and uncountable nouns. Examples of each sub-class of the nouns mentioned above are respectively: Robert and horse, tree and imagination, and boxes and cheese.

2) Verbs

Verbs generally refer to actions, event and processes. The sub-division of verbs are: transitive and intransitive verbs, dynamic and stative verbs. Examples of transitive and intransitive are: make and sleep, and examples of dynamic and stative words are: speak and know.

3) Adjectives

Adjectives typically amplify the meaning of a noun, either by occurring immediately before it, as in the wide road, or by being linked to it by means of a copula verb as in The road is/becomes wide. For this reason, adjectives are often characterized as descriptive words.

4) Adverbs

Adverbs represent a very diverse set of words. There basically are two kinds: those which refer to circumstantial information about action, event or process, such as the time, the place or the manner of it, and those that serve to intensify other adverbs and adjectives. The first group may be illustrated by the following: now, yesterday, there, outside, carefully, beautifully, and the second group by adding very, extremely, or terribly as in very hard, extremely comfortable, and terribly quietly.

In describing the words that he categorizes into functional word, Jackson in the same book, explains as follows:

1) Pronouns

Pronouns, as the name implies, have the main function of substituting for nouns, once a noun has been mentioned in a particular text. There are several sub-classes, for example: personal pronouns (e.g. I, you, he, etc.), reflexive pronouns (e.g. myself, yourself, herself, etc.), possessive pronouns (e.g. mine, yours, hers, etc.), interrogative pronouns (e.g. Which train are you catching?), relative pronouns (e.g. The boy who has lost his ball is Ann’s sister), demonstrative pronouns (e.g. That is an interesting point), and indefinite pronouns (e.g. all, many, few, etc.).

2) Numerals

Numerals are of two kinds: ordinal and cardinal. Ordinal numbers, as the name indicates, specify the order of an item and comprise the series, for instance, first, second, third, fourth, and so on. Cardinal numbers do not specify order but merely quantify and comprise the series, such as: one, two, three, four, and so forth.

3) Determiners

Determiners are a class of words that are used with nouns and the function of defining the reference of the noun in some way. The class is divided into two broad groups, namely: identifiers and quantifiers. The sub-class of identifiers includes: articles (a, an, the), possessive (e.g. my, your, his), and demonstrative (this, that, these, those). Quantifiers are expressions of indefinite quantity, and this class has some members in common with that of indefinite pronouns. Among the quantifiers are included: e.g. a lot, many, few, several, etc.

4) Prepositions

Prepositions have as their chief function that of relating a noun phrase to another unit. The relationship may be one of time (after the meal), place (in front of the house), or logic (because of his action). Many prepositions may be used to express more than one of these relationships, e.g. from in (from the beginning, from the house, from his words).

The other function of preposition is to be tied to a particular verb or adjective and to link that verb or adjective with its object. In this case the preposition cannot be said to have any special meaning of its own, e.g. for in (They are waiting for the bus), about in (He is about to go now).

5) Conjunctions

Conjunctions, as the name imply, also have a joining function, usually that of joining one clause to another, but sometimes also of one noun to another. They are for two kinds, namely: (1) co-coordinating conjunctions such as: and, or, but, and (2) sub-coordinating conjunctions, such as: when, if, why, whether, because, since, etc. which subordinate one item to another in some way. The subordination may be one of time, as in (He will come when he is ready), or one of reason, as in (He can not come because he is ill), or some other kind.

What is Sentence

The next question which also needs clarification is: “What is sentence?”. According to Eckersley and Macaulay, a sentence is “a group of words that makes a complete sentence (1972:46)”. For Frank, what is called by a sentence is “a full predication containing a subject plus a predicate with a finite verb (1972:220). While for Leech and Svartvik, “Sentences are made up of one or more clauses (1975:288)”.

From the three definitions, it is apparent that there is no single definition about sentence. Each expert has given his or her own definition based on his or her own view point or interest. Why? As Crystal states that “innumerable definitions of sentence exist, ranging from the vague characterizations of traditional grammar (such as ‘the expression of a complete thought’) to the detailed structural description of contemporary linguistic analysis (Crystal, 1991:313)”.

For the purpose of our discussion, however, let us have one more other definition as the ground. The definition is the one that is given by Richards and his colleagues in Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics. They say:

“Sentence (in grammar) is the largest unit of grammatical organization within which parts of speech (e.g. nouns, verbs, adverbs) and grammatical classes (e.g. word, phrase, clause) are said to function. In English a sentence normally contains one indefinite clause with a finite verb (Richards et al., 1985:225)”.

It is clear then that forming sentence is actually a matter of organizing or arranging words in such a way so that the arrangement can be understood as sentence by native speakers. The question that might arise is: “How can those units of language be arranged?”.

As previously stated, a sentence consists of a series of words containing independent clause and finite verb. This series of words must be organized properly to have them function as grammatical sentence. However, in doing this, one may not do it arbitrarily. In accordance to some experts, he should follow certain rule or pattern. They say that a sentence may consist of wholly content words. It may also consist of the combination of content words and functional words. But, it is impossible to form a sentence of wholly functional words. Included in this group of experts is Sabrony Rachmadi, one of the module writers in Open University.

The opinion which states that a sentence cannot be formed by a wholly functional words, as shown by the experts mentioned above, is not groundless. They argue and give some proves to support their stand. For example, let us pay attention to the examples and what Rachmadie says:

Look at the following sentences below:

1) Cats eat fish.

2) My little daughter does not speak English.

3) The children went to the zoo happily.

Rachmadie then commented:

Now you know that the underlined words are not the same as those which are not underlined. Words such as: my, does, not, the, to and so on are called functional words. …. They are used chiefly to express grammatical functions. The underlined words, on the other hand, are used to express cultural content and thus called content words. They consist of (1) nouns, (2) verbs, (3) adjectives, and (4) adverbs. They have more or less independent meanings. Surprisingly, while a sentence may consist of several content words (Cat eats fish), we cannot build up a sentence with only several functional words. Thus, “My does not the” is not a sentence (Rachmadie, 1986:3).

To the opinion that a sentence may consist of wholly content words (as sentence 1), can be accepted. Many other examples can be given beside the one given by Rachmadie above, such as: John likes tea, Siti cooked rice, Ahmad boiled eggs, etc. It also can be accepted that a sentence may consist of a combination of content words and functional words, as in the second and the third examples (My little daughter does not speak English and The children went to the zoo happily).

For the statement that a sentence may not consist of wholly functional words, care must be taken in saying that conclusion. Many cases and lots of examples have shown that the idea is misleading. In the case of “My does not the” – consisting of a series of functional words – is not a sentence is true. However, it is not necessarily true that a sentence may not consist of wholly functional words. Consider the following examples:

(a) Are you in?

(b) Who’s that?

(c) Is it yours?”

(d) He is out.

(e) Be yourself.

(f) This is mine and that is his.

Are they not sentences?

To prove that the above series of words of functional words are really sentences, we have to make analyses on them. Sentence (a) consists of auxiliary (are), pronoun (you), and preposition (in). Sentence (b) consists of interrogative (who), auxiliary (is), demonstrative adjective (that). Sentence (c) consists of auxiliary (is), pronoun (it), and possessive pronoun (yours). Sentence (d) consists of pronoun (he), auxiliary (is), and preposition (out). Sentence (e) consists of auxiliary (be) and reflexive pronoun (yourself), and sentence (f) consists of demonstrative adjective (this), auxiliary (be), possessive adjective (mine), conjunction (and), demonstrative adjective (that), auxiliary (is), and possessive adjective (his).

None of the words in the examples above belong to content word. All of them are in the category of functional words. They are arranged in such a way that any native speakers or native-speakers like can understand them very easily. So, the arrangement of words is not the only device to convey meaning. What make them meaningful to the ears of listeners is in what context those utterances are said. Concerning this context, Crystal says: … meaning is seen as multiple phenomenon, its various facets being relatable on the one hand to features of the external world, and on the other hand on the different levels of linguistic analysis, such as phonetics, grammar and semantics (1991:79)”.


From the data presented, there might be more, in this paper, it is clear that a sentence may consist of a number of content words, a combination of content words and functional words, and even, a series of wholly functional words. Context can make the arrangement of wholly functional words meaningful and understandable for the ears of native speakers and native-like speakers.

*) Dosen PS Pendidikan Bahasa Inggeris FKIP Unlam Banjarmasin


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Eckersley. C.E. and Macaulay, Margaret. 1972. Brigther Grammar. Book One.

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Fank, Marcella. 1972. Modern English: a practical reference guide. New Jersey:

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Hornby, et al. 1963. The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English.

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Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. 1975. A Communicative Grammar of English.

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Richards, Jack et al. 1985. Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics.

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