Functional Shifting in Grammar: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“Misunderstood” by artist Man Ray. Scanned from Abbate, Francesco, ed. (1972), American Art, London: Octopus Books, ISBN 0706400283, originally published by Fratelli Fabbri Editore, Milan (1964). Fair Use.

Hi Writer Peeps!

Today’s blog is about words and phrases that usually identify as one part of speech, but step out and play another role from time to time. I like to think of these as “transgrammars.” Other grammarians–stuffy sorts–call them functional shifts.

The thing about functional shifts is that we get used to seeing a word or phrase in a specific role, so when it takes a new identity, we might not recognize it. If we don’t recognize functional shifting, we make wrong assumptions about the word, about its antecedents, the sentence’s parallelism, and the whole situation just gets awkward. So awkward that we don’t even know which slot to let it use in the sentence diagram.

Functional shifts show up everywhere–not that there’s anything wrong with that. This post can’t cover every possibility, but in order to promote grammatical understanding, I’ll give you some examples of functionally shifting words, so you’ll get the idea.

NOUNS AS ADJECTIVES  You know a noun as a person, place, thing, quality, or idea. But when it describes another noun, it functions as an adjective.

Their office romance heated up in the meeting room next to the water cooler.
Before my coffee break, I gathered a file folder and some notebook paper.

Original word cloud art by Vera Kratochvil

ADJECTIVES AS NOUNS  Adjectives modify and describe nouns and pronouns. But once in a while, an adjective likes to break out and become a noun.

Only the rich could afford a collectible like that.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” –Jesus (as quoted in the Gospel of Matthew 5:5.)

ADVERBS AS NOUNS  Adverbs are swingers. They modify verbs, adjectives, clauses (We’ll talk about clauses in another post), or other adverbs. They have to do with place, time, manner, circumstance, degree, or cause. Most words that end in -ly are adverbs (slowly, loudly, suddenly), but not all adverbs end in –ly (very, almost, ever). We’ll go over adverbs in more depth in another post. For now, let’s look at some adverbs that function as nouns.

Make plans for tomorrow, but enjoy the here and now.
“I believe in yesterday.” –John Lennon, Paul McCartney (from the song,”Yesterday”)

NOUNS AS VERBS  When nouns are used as verbs, we call it verbing. The word verbing is itself a functional shift, a noun turned into a verb. Neat, huh? (I love this stuff!) With common usage and time, verbing changes the language, and the word gets declared a bona fide verb.

The rest of the team brainstormed while Gene googled* cheesecake recipes. He said, “I just can’t adult right now.”

*FYI: When used as a verb, the word Google may be–but does not have to be–capitalized, per 2017 Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

VERBS AS ADJECTIVES  Verbs are fickle. Verbs show action (I sprang from the bed) and states of being (I am a little teacup). But they like to take on other roles. Here, verbs function as adjectives.

The ceramic owl became a running gag between roommates.
Eighty-nine percent of US children had at least one working parent in 2015.

VERBS AS NOUNS (GERUNDS) When a verb functions as a noun, we call it a gerund. Gerunds always end in -ing.

I prefer swimming over jogging or skating.
Janet passed up the pool for snorkling in the gulf.

VERBS THAT FUNCTION AS NOUNS BUT ARE ALSO PARTICIPLES THAT LOOK LIKE GERUNDS (I’m just showing off now.) Here’s where verbs go wild. A verb that functions as a noun or an adjective is a participle. That’s fun because the present and progressive tenses look just like gerunds, complete with the -ing ending.

Dressing for his date, Mark felt excited but nervous.

buffalo-diagram-memeSo, how can you tell the difference between a gerund and a participle? In a nutshell: if it’s the object of a preposition, it’s a gerund; if it can be modified with an adverb, it’s a participle. But you probably won’t need to distinguish them. They’re both verbs that act as nouns.

For a more in-depth look at the difference between gerunds and participles, check out Grammar Girl’s Participles and Gerunds at QuickandDirty

I could go on and on, but my husband, who just read that last bit glassy-eyed, suggests that I might have already gone on too long. I know you’re still with me, though. You love words as I do, don’t you? In a way that he could never understand.

Now that we’ve shared functional shifting, I won’t have you pre-judging words by their appearances. You and I must vow to get to know words as individuals, and show respect for the functionally shifting. For grammar’s sake.

Can you think of more examples of functional shifting? Are you puzzling over a functional shift, or trying to identify a part of speech? Share your words with me in the comment section. We’re in this together.


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