Module 1 | Describing language and language skills : Functions

The reason for our communication is called a function or a purpose. So for what purposes do we communicate?
Given below are a few examples of functions:

    1. Assisting
    2. Verifying
    3. Inviting
    4. Thanking
    5. Expressing preferences/feelings
    6. Concurring
    7. Disagreeing
    8. Saying no
    9. To welcome someone
    10. Advising

Functions, context and exponents

Language and language use can be explained grammatically or lexically through functions. When we use functions in context, we elaborate on how the language is used and the meaning for those who are in that context.

In the middle column of the table are some segments of direct speech which are examples of exponents. We use exponents to convey a function. To name functions, we use the ing forms of verbs, e.g. thanking, introducing. The underlined words are not the function but the particular topics that the functions mention in the context. The context is in the first column.    

One exponent can convey mutiple dissimilar functions depending on the context in which it is used, e.g. the exponent ‘I’m so tired’ could be an exponent of the function of expressing feelings. However, we do not know who is saying it and to whom or where it is being said (the context). Look at the table below and read the context and the function. Try to imagine saying the phrase ‘I’m so tired’ put into these two separate contexts:



A girl talking to her mother while she cleans her bedroom.

Requesting to stop doing the work

A student talking to her teacher

Expressing her feelings

A single function can be conveyed through dissimilar exponents. Given below are a few different exponents of inviting someone to go to the cinema. Check the differences between them.

  1. Coming to the cinema?
  2. Come to the cinema with us?
  3. Would you like to come to the cinema with us?
  4. Why don’t you come to the cinema with us?
  5. We would be very pleased if you would come to the cinema with us.

Formality and appropriacy

The exponents above convey dissimilar levels of formality (more serious or less serious, relaxed ways of saying things).  Formal exponents are used in serious situations whereas informal (less serious) exponents are used in more impartial situations. Using the level of formality to acccording to the situation is called appropriacy and it is crucial.

For example, a boss who addresses his employees by saying ‘I would be pleased to bid you all a very good morning’. This is an exponent of the function of greeting which is too formal. On the other hand, a boss who addresses his ‘Hi guys!’ is obviously too informal. Therefore, we can call both of these examples inappropriate use of the language. An example of an appropriate thing for the boss to say would be ‘Good morning, everybody’ or something along those lines. 

The nerd baby says ...

  • Language teaching coursebooks are usually compiled around functions. For example, the syllabus outline in a coursebook might have a list of functions and language like in the table below:



Expressing likes

First and third person present simple affirmative: I like… he/she likes…

Expressing dislikes

First and third person present simple negative: I don’t like… he/she doesn’t like…

  • Usually, coursebooks teach functions together with the grammar of their exponents. For an example, refer to the table above. In the second column, the ‘present simple affirmative’ is incorporated and the phrases ‘I like… he/she likes…’ are exponents of the function ‘Expressing likes’.
  • Functions and grammar when put together assist in giving grammar a meaning and therefore aids students to learn the function with grammatical structures which can be used in separate contexts.
  • Teachers can use real-world contexts to present and practise grammar with the aid of a functional approach to teaching the language. it helps the students to see how grammar is used in the real world.

Test your knowledge

Write down five dissimlar exponents for every single one of the functions given below.

  1. Introducing yourself
  2. Thanking
  3. Apologising
  4. Asking for clarification
  5. Suggesting

Now have a look at your list of exponents. Make an ‘F’ mark to show which ones are formal, an ‘N’ mark to show which are neutral and an ‘I’ mark to show which are informal.

Read your list again and decide which of your exponents are appropriate to teach to beginner level students.

Given below are some comments from teachers about the functions of grammar. Which of the comments do you agree with? Why or why not?

  1. Grammar is much more difficult to teach than functions.
  2. It is not necessary for students to learn the names of the functions. Just a few of the exponents would be enough.
  3. For students who are in the beginner level, functions are too complicated and consist of much too difficult grammar to learn.

On the left side of the table below there are examples of sentences. On the right there are some functions. Match the sentences with the functions. There is an extra function which is unnecessary.

Example sentences


I don’t believe that is a good option.

A describing

It’s a beautiful are

B clarifying

I am much bigger

C comparing

I would love to travel to another country.

D speculating

I’m not sure if she would help, but she might.

E disagreeing

What I’m trying to say is…

F suggesting


G wishing