Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Grammar Essentials 3: Grammatical Function

Posted: Jan 20, 2014 18:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01


This tutorial looks at grammatical functions or grammatical relations—that is to say the major parts of the sentence.

The approach I will be taking in this tutorial is largely traditional, which is to say based on the traditional grammatical terminology used in many Latin, Greek, and Old English textbooks, rather than the more modern terminology used in many linguistics textbooks. This is because these tutorials are largely aimed at students studying dead languages or who need to acquire some grammatical definitions in a hurry. If you understand the discussion here and in the previous two tutorials, you should have no problem following more advanced contemporary linguistic explanations.

Previous: Parts of Speech (Word classes)

The parts of the sentence

It is useful in discussing grammatical function to start with the simple declarative sentence. A declarative sentence is a sentence that simply states something—as opposed to asking a question or issuing a command:

  declarative setences questions commands
1 The boy bit the dog. Did the boy bite the dog? Bite the dog!
2 The train was stopped by Superman Was the train stopped by Superman? Stop the train, Superman!
3 He is a firefighter Is he a firefighter? Be a firefighter!
4 The very nice politician who saved the whales asked me for my vote. Did the very nice politician who saved the whales ask you for your vote? Ask me for my vote!
5 She said that she knew how to do that because she’s taught it before. Did she say that she knew how to do that because she’s taught it before? Say that you know how to do it because you’ve taught it before.

A simple sentence is a sentence that consists of a single main clause—as opposed to sentences with dependent clauses In the above table, rows 1 through 3 contain simple sentences; the sentences in lines 4 and 5 are not simple.

Subjects and Predicates

In traditional grammar, simple declarative sentences can be broken down into two main parts:

  subject predicate
1 The boy bit the dog
2 The train was stopped by Superman
3 He is a firefighter
4 Nice girls don’t make history
5 The man in the black hat and sunglasses sells their meth to the people of Albuquerque
6 he sells it to them

There are a couple of things to note about these examples.

  1. In each case the subject consists of a noun, pronoun, or noun-phrase (i.e. a group of words that can be substituted for by a pronoun).
  2. In each case the predicate consists of a verb and associated objects, indirect objects, adverbs, and other material.
  3. If the subject is a pronoun, or if you replace the subject with a pronoun (as in sentences 5 and 6), you use the subject form (I, you, he/_she_/_it_, we, you, or they)
  4. In the predicate, the most important pronouns will be in the object case (i.e. me, you, him/_her_/_it_, us, you, or them). You can have pronouns in other cases (e.g. subject or possessive), as is the case with “their meth” in example 5; in such cases, however, you will find that they occur in phrases that can themselves be replaced by pronouns in the object case, as happens in sentence 6, where “their meth” has been replaced by “it.”

(If you are unsure of what these terms mean, take another look at Essential Grammar 2: Parts of Speech and Essential Grammar 1: Inflectional morphology).


The next grammatical function for us to look at is the object. Traditionally, we say that there are three kinds of objects in English:

Direct objects and Indirect objects both depend on verbs and, as a result, are found in the predicate (the red parts of the sentence in the examples at the beginning of this tutorial). Prepositional objects depend on prepositions, and so can be found anywhere in the sentence. The fact that they depend on prepositions, however, makes them easy to spot (again, if you are having difficulty with terminology like “preposition,” or “verb,” review the previous tutorial, Essential Grammar 2: Parts of Speech).

Direct Objects

A direct object is the thing, concept, idea, or similar that a verb operates on, e.g.

  Subject Predicate
verb direct object other stuff
1 I like money  
2 Bobby cut a piece of the really nice cake  
3 The funny monkey ate old and dead fruit flies  
4 She hit him for no reason
5 They skate   really nicely

Note the following about these examples:

  1. The direct object consists of one or more nouns, pronouns, or noun phrases (i.e. a group of words that can be replaced by a pronoun).
  2. If you use a pronoun for a direct object or try replacing a noun or noun phrase with a pronoun, the pronoun will be in the object case (i.e. me/_you_/_him_/_her_/_it_/_us_/_you_/_them_).
  3. Direct objects can only follow verbs that allow them (e.g. like, cut, ate, etc.). Example 6 doesn’t have a direct object because skate doesn’t allow objects. Verbs that allow objects are known as transitive verbs; verbs that do not are known as intransitive verbs.
Indirect objects

An indirect object is something that is indirectly affected by the action of a verb. The most common type of indirect relationship is one of benefit: i.e. that something is done to or for an indirect object.

In English this idea can be expressed in two different ways: as an indirect object, and as a prepositional phrase. Although both are commonly described as “indirect objects,” the prepositional phrase type is really a different type of construction, which we’ll discuss below (see adverbials). In this section we will only discuss “real” indirect objects.

Here are some examples of real indirect objects and one example of a prepositional indirect object:

  Subject Predicate
verb indirect object direct object other stuff
1 Bobby cut him a piece of the really nice cake  
2 Suzy bought herself a fishing rod  
3 he taught those weird people some useful lessons
4 I gave them a book  
5 I gave   a book to them
6 The funny monkey ate   old and dead fruit flies for her
7 They skate   really nicely
8 They skate   really nicely for them

Examples 1 through 4 have real indirect objects; examples 5 and 8 have prepositional “indirect objects” (to them and for them); example 7 doesn’t have an indirect object; examples 6 through 8 can’t have real indirect objects.

Here are some things to notice about indirect objects:

  1. They involve nouns, pronouns, or noun phrases
  2. If you use a pronoun as an indirect object or replace a noun or noun phrase indirect object with a pronoun, the pronoun will be in the object case
  3. If a verb has both an indirect object and a direct object, the indirect object is the first object and the direct object is the second
  4. indirect objects can only occur with verbs that allow them. Verbs that allow direct objects are transitive; but not all transitive verbs can take an indirect object (e.g. ate).
  5. You can always convert real indirect objects to prepositional “indirect objects” (cf. sentences 4 and 5); but you can’t always convert prepositional “indirect objects” to real indirect objects (e.g. you can’t convert sentence 6 to read: *The funny money ate her old and dead fruitflies).
Prepositional Objects

Prepositional objects are, as the name suggests, objects of a preposition. Otherwise, they are very similar to the direct objects of verbs.

Here are some examples:

  Preposition Prepositional object
1 on the mountain
2 up the really long creek
3 with them
4 for Suzy
5 beside homecoming queens

Here are some things to observe; you will see that they are very similar to what we have already observed about indirect and direct objects:

  1. Prepositional objects are nouns, pronouns, or noun phrases
  2. If they are pronouns, they are in the object case
  3. They follow the preposition that governs them (though in poetry you can put them in front sometimes).

In this case, we haven’t placed the examples in sentences. This is because prepositional phrases are actually adverbials (see below), which means they can go anywhere in the sentence:

  subject predicate
1 The fool on the hill sees the sun going down
2 The boy bit the dog on the nose
3 The train from Chicago with no brakes was stopped by Superman on Sunday morning before breakfast

Other relations

In traditional grammar, the main grammatical functions are subjects, objects, and indirect objects. There are three other relations worth paying attention to:

These relations are often closely related to specific parts of speech, and so a lot of information about them can be found in my tutorial, Essential Grammar 2: Parts of Speech


Adverbials are words and phrases that behave like adverbs (see Essential Grammar 2: Parts of Speech). This means that

Adverbials include the following types of words and phrases:

To be continued…

1Subjects are sometimes defined semantically as being “the person or thing that does the action of the verb.” This is a weak definition, because a) verbs are not always “action words”; and b) it doesn’t account for passive sentences like The train was stopped by Superman: in this sentence, the actor is Superman, not the train; but the train is the subject.





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