Morphology - Unit One - Lesson No. 3

Content Words and Function Words

Languages make distinction between two kinds of words: content words and function words. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are the content words . These words denote concepts such as objects, actions, attributes, and ideas that we can think about like children, anarchism, soar and purple . Content words are sometimes called open class words because we can regularly do add new words to these classes. A new word, steganography , which is the art of hiding information in electronic text, entered English with the internet revolution. Verbs like dis have come into the language quite recently, as have nouns like blog and adverbs like 24/7 , pronounced “twenty-four seven.”

Other classes of words do not have clear lexical meaning or obvious concepts associated with them, including conjunctions such as and , or and but ; prepositions such as in and of ; the articles the, a/an , and pronouns such as it and he or she . These kinds of words are called function words because they specify grammatical relations and have little or no semantic content. For example, the articles indicate whether a noun is definite or indefinite - the boy or a boy. The preposition of indicates possession, as in “the book of yours,” but this word indicates many other kinds of relations too. The it and it’s raining, or the archbishop found it advisable are further examples of words whose function is purely grammatical – they are required by the rules of syntax, and we can hardly do without them. Function words are sometimes called closed class words. It is difficult to think of any new conjunctions, prepositions, or pronouns that have recently entered the language. The small set of personal pronouns such as I, me, mine, he, she , and so on are parts of this class.

The difference between content and function words is illustrated by the following test that circulated recently over the internet:

Please count the number of F’s in the following text without reading further:


If you are like most people, your answer will be three. That answer is wrong. The correct answer is six. Count again. This time, pay attention to the function word OF.
This test illustrates that the brain treats content and function words differently.


The linguistic evidence suggests that content words and function words play different roles in language. Content words bear the brunt of meaning, whereas the function words connect words to the larger grammatical context (Fromkin, et al 2007, Pp. 74 – 76).

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