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Functional theories of grammar are those approaches to the study of language that see functionality of language and its elements to be the key to understanding linguistic processes and structures. Functional theories of language propose that since language is fundamentally a tool, it is reasonable to assume that its structures are best analyzed and understood with reference to the functions they carry out. Functional theories of grammar differ from structural linguistics or formalist language theories, in that the latter approaches seek to define the different elements of language and describe the way they relate to each other only as systems of formal rules or operations, whereas the former additionally takes into account the context where linguistic elements are used and studies the way they are instrumentally useful or functional in the given environment. This means that functional theories of grammar tend to pay attention to the way language is actually used in communicative context. The formal relations between linguistic elements are assumed to be functionally-motivated.
There are several distinct grammatical frameworks that employ a functional approach.
Dik characterises the functional approach as follows:
In the functional paradigm a language is in the first place conceptualized as an instrument of social interaction among human beings, used with the intention of establishing communicative relationships. Within this paradigm one attempts to reveal the instrumentality of language with respect to what people do and achieve with it in social interaction. A natural language, in other words, is seen as an integrated part of the communicative competence of the natural language user. (2, p. 3)
Because of its emphasis on usage, communicative function, and the social context of language, functional grammar differs significantly from other linguistic theories which stress purely formal approaches to grammar, notably Chomskyan generative grammar. Functional grammar makes much use of corpus linguistics and linguistic typology to provide material.
Functions exist on all levels of grammar, and even in phonology, where the function of the phoneme is to distinguish between lexical material.
[Functional grammar] analyzes grammatical structure, as do formal and structural grammar; but it also analyzes the entire communicative situation: the purpose of the speech event, its participants, its discourse context. Functionalists maintain that the communicative situation motivates, constrains, explains, or otherwise determines grammatical structure, and that structural or formal approaches are not merely limited to an artificially restricted data base, but are inadequate even as structural accounts. Functional grammar, then, differs from formal and structural grammar in that it purports not to model but to explain; and the explanation is grounded in the communicative situation.
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