Teaching Grammar to Adults: Form Follows Function

Form follows function is one of the fundamental principles of design, from architecture to fashion to industrial and graphic design. The great American architect Louis Sullivan identified it as the single inviolable rule of his trade. But what does it mean? Well, if you’re designing, say, a coffee mug, then first and foremost it needs to hold coffee. The ornamental choices that you make can’t interfere with that function. Now, like any fashion-forward guy, I’d kill for a denim coffee mug to complement my denim shirt, faded denim jacket, raw denim jeans, and denim Tom’s. But, much to my chagrin, denim lacks pretty much all of the structural and thermo-insular properties that make for a good coffee vessel, so I’m stuck with this clashy ceramic. Form, alas, ever follows function.

In language, too, we talk about form and function, and in language, too, form is subordinate to function. For instance, there’s nothing special about the arrangement of the letters T-R-E-E that signifies a big, woody plant; it’s just an arbitrary form that we’ve agreed upon to fulfill the function of talking about a particular object. Form and function run throughout language, from an infinitesimal tittle to century-spanning discourses and genres.

Introducing the Terms

With my adult students, I’ll usually teach these terms around the intermediate level, and from there on out they become instrumental in our ongoing conversation about the language. I usually first introduce them when it’s time to talk about gerunds. Students often remember only that a gerund is an -ing verb, and of course that’s only the half of it. So I write three sentences on the board. Who can find the gerund?

The girl is walking.

The walking girl is my cousin.

The girl likes walking.

The middle one! First one! The fifth one! None of the above! But usually one or two students can correctly identify the third example as the gerund. Okay, and what makes it a gerund? It’s the object of likes, it works like a noun. Aha! Even though they all have the same form, it’s both form and what it does—the function—that make a gerund a gerund. A gerund is an -ing verb that works like a noun.

A Sample Application

Now that they’ve got the idea, let’s take a look at how these new terms come into play in an actual lesson. I’m going to demonstrate with some of my favorite structures to teach: although and despite. In the process we’ll also hit on because, because of, even though, in spite of, and the fact that. By the end, we’ll have answered that age-old question, “What, Conjunction Junction, is your function?

Start by writing two simple sentences on the board:

It was raining.     I brought my umbrella.

They’re correct, no problems, but in English we like to combine ideas into longer sentences. How can we do that? Conjunctions! Some students will point out that we can use so here. So we can, very good. What word could we put at the beginning? Because? Aha, very good. So we have a clause—a subject and verb—describing a situation—It was raining—and another clause describing an action that is a natural consequence of the situation—I brought my umbrella. Here we can use because or even since. Perfect.

Before we get to although, do we remember because of? And it’s here that the distinction between form and function is so useful. The meaning, the function, of because and because of is identical; it’s only in form that they differ. Because is a conjunction: It connects a clause with another clause. But with something like the weather, we have no real need for that dummy subject it; we can just say the rain. And this is why we have because of, a preposition that means the same thing but only needs a noun phrase after it.

Here’s my board at this point:


Notice that a whole lot of the tricky metalinguistic stuff is color-coded, in hopes of letting students process it on an intuitive, rather than analytic level. We’ve also set aside some space for the real meat of the lesson, which is still to come.

So because and because of are different in form, but perform the same function: connecting a situation with an action that logically follows from it. But do we always act logically? Do we bring an umbrella every time it rains? Have we yet developed a polymer that combines the comfortable chic of denim with the thermodynamic qualities of ceramic? No, an insane, irrational, incorrigible species, we are. At this point we can write I left my umbrella at home in the lower-right quadrant of the board.

And of course here is where we use although: a situation where we expect one thing, but something else happens, a relationship called concession. (Learners have often been told that although is just a fancy but, and this is the perfect time to clarify. But is simple contrast: I like apples, but I don’t like bananas. Although isn’t appropriate here because liking apples doesn’t lead to liking bananas.) Functionally, although is the opposite of because, but in terms of their grammatical form, they’re much the same: Both are subordinating conjunctions joining two clauses. Both can come either at the beginning of the sentence with a comma between the two clauses or in the middle with no comma.


I know I said we’re going to teach both although and despite, but your job is already done! Just draw this table on the board:


They already know how despite works because they understand form and function and despite has the same grammatical form as because of and expresses the same function* as although. You can just sit back and sip that coffee . . .

But before we erase, let’s get the next few grammar lessons out of the way, too: We can throw since in the same cell as because, due to with because of, even though next to although, and in spite of with despite. They share the same form and function as their cellmates. If you’re feeling extra fancy, show them how adding the fact that to any of the prepositions makes them function like a conjunction!



*Just a quick caveat: as I said above, form and function run throughout the language—all languages—and, that being the case, they’re extremely complex. Their meanings vary from subdiscipline to subdiscipline, sometimes even from writer to writer. I’m using them in a pragmatic and therefore necessarily oversimplified sense; use them in class but do a bit more reading before using them in a more sophisticated linguistic discussion.


About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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2 Responses to Teaching Grammar to Adults: Form Follows Function

  1. Audrey says:

    Great post, Rob!

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