Whether you're a native English speaker or are learning English as a second language, you will understand how confusing English grammar can be.

English vocabulary is just as tricky.

No doubt, you want to find out as much as you can to help you improve your English. So — get ready to find out all about words that serve multiple purposes.

If you've been taking English lessons for a while, you have probably heard of homographs — English words with the same spelling but different pronunciation.

You will not learn about homonyms, homophones or homographs in this blog post, however, if these words do confuse you, make sure you look them up.

Double-function words are what we're all about today. Keep reading to find out exactly what they are.

Two Words, Three Functions: Before and After

'Before' and 'after' are indicators of time, however, depending on their placement in a sentence, they can have any one of three different purposes.

'Before and after' - does it make any difference where they are placed in a sentence?
'Before' and 'after' - are they conjunctions, prepositions or adverbs? (Source: Pixabay Credit: PhotoEditing)

First of all, have a look at these two sentences:

  • Before I join large group English classes, I want to try to learn English online with a private tutor.
  • I practise speaking after I learn new idioms, words and phrases.

Before and after are conjunctions when they come before or after the clause they depend on.

Next, consider how before and after are used here:

  • I will be ready for my IELTS exam before John.
  • I want to live in an English speaking country after I graduate.

Before and after are prepositions when they are placed in front of nouns or pronouns.

Finally, perhaps you've heard sentences like these ones:

  • I've never heard that English pronunciation before.
  • A friend told me about Superprof. Immediately after, I enrolled in one of their ESL courses.

Before and after are adverbs when they are independent of any clause and stay away from pronouns and nouns.

This last one is a bit tricky, but if you ask yourself when the verb happened, the answer is the adverb.

Check our special blog post if you want more information about clauses in English grammar.

Have a go at writing some of your own examples for these two sneaky words.

One Word, Two Parts of Speech: Nouns as Adjectives

In beginning English courses, changing adjectives to adverbs is one of the earliest lessons. In theory, these words act like a dual-function word, but they're not exactly the same.

Many adjectives will take the suffix -ly, which essentially transforms its function.

However, because we've modified the word by adding a suffix, it does not really fit the category of words under discussion. Also, they tend to keep roughly the same meaning.

Are you taking ESL lessons or are you the English tutor?

ESL and English are actually nouns, however, in this sentence, they both function as adjectives because they describe the lessons and the tutor.

Let's sidetrack for a moment for some important information about hyphens:

  • When a noun modifies another noun, therefore acting as an adjective, you do not need a hyphen.
  • When the two nouns are of equal importance, then they require either a hyphen (or to be written as one word).

Here is an example:

My English tutor helps build my self-confidence.

Here, the word 'English' gives us more information about the type of tutor, so it is a modifier. On the other hand, self and confidence are both equally as important, so use a hyphen.

To add to the fun, there are rules about when you need to write compound word phrases separately, as one word, or with a hyphen.

When we walked in to Class 5, we saw the desks in the classroom had been separated by our class teacher. 'You have an in-class essay today,' she said, 'which must be completed in class time.'

The Other Way Around: Adjectives as Nouns

Nouns can modify nouns — we've just seen that.

Adjectives can function as nouns as well.

Students from my language school often practise speaking English with the elderly.

Elderly is usually used to describe the age of a person, so it's an adjective. However, it is also commonly used to name or categorise a group of people who are old.

Did you notice that there was an article (the) before elderly? Generally, if you use an article before an adjective, it allows it to function as a noun.

The studious will learn English the quickest.

Such expressions, which use adjectives as nouns, are always plural. This means the verb tense is third person plural.

If you're looking for another English grammar lesson, have a look at our post about style and form in the English language.

The Ultimate Double-Function Words: Verbs

Verbs are the foxes of the world of English vocabulary — sneaky and cunning.

Is 'look' a double-function word?
What are these guys looking at? Do they think they're looking good? (Source: Pixabay Credit: Komposita)

Verbs are so much fun! There are sixteen verb tenses to learn how to conjugate and use, and there are six verb classifications: linking, action, transitive, intransitive, modal, and auxiliary.

Any verb can be action, modal or auxiliary. However, our focus is on the verbs that, depending on how they are used, are either action or linking, and transitive or intransitive.

Sophie looked for her English dictionary for over an hour.

Look is an action verb in this sentence because Sophie is actively doing something.

Sophie looked so confident before her English writing test.

This time, Sophie isn't actively doing something, so looked links Sophie to confident.

Verbs that can be either action or linking, depending on the context, include:

  • appear
  • become
  • feel
  • grow
  • like
  • look
  • smell
  • taste
  • turn

Improve your writing skills and create your own English grammar lesson by writing action and linking sentences for each one in the list.

When practising your speaking skills, you don't need to know if the verb is linking or action as long as you use it correctly.

Critical to Know the Difference: Transitive or Intransitive?

When you started to learn English, you would have begun with the fundamental sentence structure — subject + verb + object.

Nobody mentioned that sentences in this format only use transitive verbs because of the need for a direct object.

The ability to act on objects is the key difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

Ellen revises her English grammar rules every day.

Revise has a direct object (rules), therefore it is a transitive verb.

Toby slept throughout the entire reading and writing session.

Slept doesn't have an object, therefore it is an intransitive verb.

Asking 'what?' or 'who?' after the subject-verb section is the quickest way to determine if a verb is transitive.

Slept has to be intransitive because 'Toby slept what?' is not a correct sentence.

Depending on how they are used, some verbs can be both intransitive and transitive.

Peter demonstrated his English fluency.

Anna demonstrated at the rally.

Which one is transitive?

Online, there are many sources, including online dictionaries, which will help you improve your knowledge of transitive and intransitive verbs.

So, You Want a Multiple Function-Changing Word? We Give You 'Up'

How can one tiny, two-letter word possibly have so many meanings and functions?

Take a breath:

  • Committee members are UP for re-election each year.
  • Topics come UP during meetings.
  • It's UP to the student to write UP his class notes.
  • Have you ever been told to speak UP, stand UP, put UP or shut UP?
  • We have to lock UP our apartment and fix UP any damages.
  • We call UP our friends, brighten UP a room, get stood UP, warm UP our cars, and clean UP after ourselves.

Keep UP with all the uses of 'up' by looking the word UP.

In the dictionary, you will see UP listed as an adjective, an adverb, a preposition and a verb!

Do You Really Need This English Grammar Lesson to Function in English Speaking Countries?

As young children, native English speakers learn to speak by mimicking adults. They copy sounds and repeat words and phrases until they get the result they want. There are no explicit grammar lessons until the children are well into their schooling. Even then, people who speak English as their native tongue are often unaware of specific grammar rules.

For non native English speakers, knowledge of grammar rules is essential.
The ability to drive a car does not require explicit knowledge of how the engine works. (Source: Pixabay Credit: Krzysiek)

During the early years of formal education, schools focus on reading and writing skills, along with other language skills, such as spelling. Grammar, sentence structure and pronunciation happen via immersion.

Second language learners, on the other hand, are bombarded with the rules of grammar. In some areas, schools where English is taught focus almost exclusively on memorising grammar and vocabulary lists, with the students having little or no opportunity to practise what they have learned after each English grammar lesson.

Developing listening skills is the hardest, requiring motivation and hard work from students.

Nobody ever said you needed to know how an engine works to be able to drive the vehicle.

Even if you have no idea where the spark plugs are, or what a crankshaft is, you can still obtain a driver licence. In the same way, you can probably still conjugate and use a verb accurately, even if you have no idea whether it's transitive or intransitive.

Vocabulary is often described as the building blocks of language. To take this one step further, we can certainly add that grammar is the mortar that holds the English language together.

English grammar has changed dramatically over the years. Learn more about its history here.

You may feel that you can still speak English fluently without an in-depth knowledge of grammar. However, you will not truly improve your English language skills if you don't have the foundational knowledge that ensures it will function smoothly.

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Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.