Function – how to understand it

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Function – definition

function Function is the term used to express the purpose of a text or of a speech act.

redbtn This function can be determined by the writer or by the reader.


redbtn Texts or spoken pieces might fall into one of the following broad categories:

persuasion an advertisement
information a train timetable
entertainment a short story
instruction how to build a wardrobe
persuasion a sermon
information a radio weather forcast
entertainment a joke
instruction how to get from A to B


redbtn The term ‘function’ is used as a technical term in linguistics and in literary criticism.

redbtn An awareness of function helps to produce efficient writing and speaking.

redbtn An awareness of function also results in efficient reading and listening.

redbtn NB! Function is one of the three important features of communication. The other two are audience and form.

redbtn The four general functions possess certain stylistic features or attributes:

Instruction the imperative mode and direct address
[Stir the mixture]
Persuasion emotive vocabulary
[beautiful, duty, militant, heart]
Information factual data
[time, locations, measurements]
Entertainment often breaks rules of grammar, spelling, pronunciation

redbtn Awareness of these in the production of speech or writing leads to effective communication and an appropriate style.

redbtn For instance, if we buy a product such as a chicken casserole from a supermarket we may be more interested in what’s in it than how to cook it. We may be interested in both these elements, but we certainly wouldn’t want them mixed together.

redbtn Food manufacturers for this reason present the list of ingredients [information] separately from how to prepare the dish [instructions]. This simple example shows the concept of function working efficiently.

redbtn If we receive a phone call from a close relative who comes to visit more often than we would like, we immediately try to ascertain the purpose [function] of the call. Is it –

  • an attempt to fix up the next visit? [persuade]
  • to tell us the possible dates? [inform]
  • to explain how their vegetables should be cooked? [instruct]
  • to tell us that the cat has learned to swim? [entertain]

redbtn In this example, the person who phones to arrange the visit may have every interest in obscuring the function of the call. As a recipient however, we are very interested in finding out what it is. Such is the crucial nature of function.

redbtn The National Curriculum for the teaching of English in Schools now states the importance of making children aware of the function of all the varied pieces they read and write.

redbtn Examining boards for A level English will only accept written work which has an authentic function. That is, it should be as close as possible to an example which could be used in real life.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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