English with Nab

Functions – the reason for saying what we do

Functions are the communicative purposes of what we say or write; in other words, the reason for saying what we do.

Take a look at the following examples of “functions:”

  • Asking permission
  • Expressing moods
  • Introducing yourself
  • Inviting someone

Functions can also be understood as the intentions and motivations behind our speech. They are not the actual words we use, but categories of words we can use. Unlike grammar, there is no universal structure or form for functions. Functions are communicative in nature, with an emphasis on what the desired outcomes of language are.


  • “Could I borrow your pencil for a minute?”
  • “I’m feeling a bit down today.”
  • “Hi, I’m Natalie.”
  • “Jessica, would you like to get some lunch with me?”

If you read these sentences carefully, you will realize that they are examples of each of the functions provided at the beginning of this lesson. These are called exponents. An exponent is the language we use to express a function. Take a look at the relationship between our example functions and exponents:

         Function                 Exponent

Asking permission – “Could I borrow your pencil for a minute?”

Expressing moods – “I’m feeling a bit down today.”

Introducing yourself – “Hi, I’m Natalie.”

Inviting someone – “Jessica, would you like to get some lunch with me?”

A function can have multiple exponents, as there are many ways to express ourselves. If we are trying to express our mood, we may use any of the following exponents:

  • I’m not feeling well.
  • This rainy weather is giving me the blues.
  • Unfortunately, I’m feeling a bit under the weather today.
  • I feel like crap!

All of the exponents above give the same general message. The speaker is unhappy, moody, and perhaps even a bit unwell. However, the speaker would probably not want to use the last one if he is speaking to his new employer!

The exponent we choose to use is highly dependent on context. For instance, the way we ask permission from a close friend is different from how we ask permission from someone who is not so close.

Asking permission from a close friend: 

“Hey Nigel, I’m freezing cold! I’m going to crank up the heat, alright?”

Asking permission from a casual acquaintance at a dinner party at his home: 

“Excuse me Nigel. I’m feeling a bit cold, and my thin sweater isn’t helping much. Would it be possible to turn the heat up a bit? I’d really appreciate it.”

Learning to use functions goes beyond simply knowing a variety of exponents. It involves assessing several factors, including anything related to the people you are speaking with, your relationship to them, the time, place, and situation in which you find yourselves, etc., and choosing the most appropriate way to communicate as you desire.

Some functions may have many exponents (such as suggesting) while some might have very few (such as welcoming). How many exponents can you think of for the following functions?

  • Introducing yourself
  • Thanking someone
  • Expressing opinions
  • Agreeing
  • Expressing condolence
  • Suggesting
  • Complaining
  • Refusing
  • Enquiring
  • Expressing doubt

In an example from the lesson before last, we saw that the way we made a request from Nigel (to “turn up the heat”) depended on our relationship with him – whether he was a close friend or a casual acquaintance significantly altered the language we used. While the function didn’t change, the exponent we used did. This is known as appropriacy. Appropriacy refers to the suitability of language within context. It depends on a mix of three factors: person, situation, and purpose. In other words, the basis for appropriate choice of exponents is set by: 1) who you are talking to and what your relationship is with them, 2) the situation you find yourselves in, and 3) why are you talking.


Our example with Nigel showed how the exponent was modified due to the relationship. The closeness of the relationship determines the level of politeness or familiarity in the tone of your language.

  • Family, friends, partners, teammates, and classmates are generally closer, and the use of informal language is more appropriate.
  • Customers, work-related acquaintances, managers, strangers, are more distant, and the use of more formal language is more appropriate.

Many students (especially those from more structured cultures) may feel it is simpler to stick with formal language whenever they speak in order to avoid coming off as rude or inappropriate. It is not that simple, however. In English, informal speaking is a sign of closeness and friendship. It would be awkward if an EFL student made friends with an American classmate but maintained a formal, stiff way of speaking. The conversations would feel guarded, which would result in the classmate feeling like the relationship is distant, and that the EFL student was not interested in becoming “real” friends.

The categories above are not set in stone. Some employers, in an attempt to foster trust and honest communication, avoid formal language and encourage a casual, informal environment in the workplace. Employees and managers may develop closer, more personal relationships through work and grow comfortable speaking informally. Students should consider cultural standards of distance, but in the end should choose how to speak based on the actual relationship they have with the recipient.


Maybe you and Nigel are great friends. You spend time together every few days, you play poker every week, you go bike riding, and you have known each other since you were in grade school. Formal language is out of the question, right? Wrong! Often the environment plays a role in choosing appropriate exponents.

Imagine you and Nigel are at the mall and he bumps into his boss, who is much older and conservative and speaks formally. The three of you proceed to have a short conversation. After a few minutes it feels like the right time to go. In this situation, it would be inappropriate to slap Nigel on the back and say,

“Hey dude, let’s get out of here and hit the bar! I’m dying for some booze!”

A more appropriate way to end the conversation and part ways would be to glance at your watch and say,

“Nigel, I think we should take our leave from Mr. X now. I’m sure he’s quite busy. Mr. X, it was great to…”

Situational appropriacy depends on every person in the conversation (such as Mr. X), or on the environment/physical location. It would be inappropriate to speak very casually with your close friends during mass in a Roman Catholic Church!


Finally, appropriacy is determined by the purpose of the speech. Since we are well-acquainted with Nigel by now, we’ll use him again in the next example.

You are in a convenience store. You are thirsty. You pick out a bottle of grapefruit juice and head over to the cashier.

You realize you left your wallet in the car. You turn to Nigel and say:

“Awww, shoot! I left my wallet in the car! Can you give me $2?”

Now, imagine a completely different scenario. You are shopping for a new home. The prices are high and you are getting discouraged, realizing your budget is not going to be enough for the home you had pictured. After months of searching, you find a gorgeous place, exactly what you want, and it’s a great deal! However, you are $15,000 short! You know Nigel recently made a lot of money investing in Bitcoin, and has extra cash lying around. You are close enough to ask him for a loan, but you also want to be very sensitive and careful. You don’t want to ruin your friendship, and you want to make sure he has an easy way to say “no” without feeling awkward. After letting Nigel know about the house you found, and how close you are, you might say the following:

“Actually, I wanted to see how you would feel about lending me $15,000 to complete the purchase. You know I have a steady job, and we have been friends forever. I would be able to give it back to you within 6 months, plus take you out for a gourmet lobster dinner once I’ve paid you back! I’m not sure of your financial situation and comfort level, but if you are even a bit uncomfortable or if it is a bit inconvenient let me know! You’re my good friend and whether you are able to help or not would have no bearing at all on our relationship. If you can’t I could always speak with my parents or my boss.

The choice of words, tone, and even length are completely different although the basic function is the same: asking to borrow money. In the first example, the speaker is casual and fully expects Nigel to give him the money. There is no real focus on softening the request, or leaving an option for Nigel to say “no” easily.

The second example is very different. The speaker has provided background information. The speaker’s tone is friendly and close, but has more formality and sensitivity than the first example. He provides some reassurances, commitments (pay you back within 6 months), a way to say no (not sure of your financial situation; speak with my parents) and a seriousness that conveys that Nigel is not taken for granted.


The difficulty with appropriacy is that so much of it is culturally specific and acquired during L1 learning. Through direct translation or speaking similarly to their native tongue, EFL speakers can sound inappropriate and even downright rude in English! Take a look at the following examples:

  • In Spain it is uncommon to say “por favor” (please) when ordering a drink
  • In China/Taiwan when ordering in a restaurant, people say “I want…” (direct translation of “wo yao“), instead of “Can I please have…” or “I’d like…”
  • In Czech, the common saying: “Nemate chleb?” is directly translated as: “Don’t you have bread?” which would be rude in English unless among close friends.

Another issue that arises is incorrect usage of intonation. Mandarin and Cantonese are languages that derive their meanings through intonation; if you change the tone of a word, you change the word completely! 

Students with these and other similar language backgrounds tend to maintain a flat, unemotional voice when speaking, which is often misconstrued as rude and cold. However, the students are simply following the rules of their L1s; that is to change the intonation could result in complete misuse of the words they are trying to say!

To combat these issues, teachers include intonation activities, and encourage students to “think” in English rather than translating from their L1s. Activities on appropriacy will be introduced later on in this Unit.


If you want to learn about Intonation, I have this article for you (https://englishwithnab.com/intonation-how-stressing-the-words-can-change-the-meaning-of-what-you-say/

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