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What Are the Different Functions of Language

Mary Smith
By Mary Smith. Updated: January 16, 2017
What Are the Different Functions of Language

When we speak of language functions, we're referring to the purpose of the speaker or sender who is using the language. The objectives and purposes of the person who is speaking will determine the dominant function. There are six existing ones and, depending on the function, a particular type of specific language will be used. Therefore, at OneHowTo we'll explain in detail what the different functions of language are.

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  1. Referential function
  2. Expressive function
  3. Directive function
  4. Phatic function
  5. Poetic function
  6. Metalinguistic function

Referential function

One of the main functions of language is informative, which in turn is also known as explanatory, representative or referential . This type of language is used to convey information in an objective way. It is one of the most obvious language functions in the majority of texts.

For example: Unemployment levels are down 5% this month.

What Are the Different Functions of Language - Referential function

Expressive function

In those cases where we use language to express feelings, emotions, moods, desires, etc. the function we encounter is expressive or emotive. This is directly linked to the subjectivity of the speaker or sender.

For example: Today I feel better than ever.

What Are the Different Functions of Language - Expressive function

Directive function

If the sender wishes to draw the attention of the recipient and/or provoke a reaction from them, they will use the directive or appellate language function. The function is often a command or question so generally imperatives and interrogative modes are used.

For example: Take this book to Mary and tell her thank you.

What Are the Different Functions of Language - Directive function

Phatic function

Known as phatic or contact this function is used to start, stop or end a conversation, as well as to check for contact between sender and receiver. Good examples are the formulas used to greet or say goodbye.

For example: Hello, can you hear me okay?

What Are the Different Functions of Language - Phatic function

Poetic function

Another function of language is poetic or aesthetic, used to focus on the message itself, embellishing it with rhetorical features or figures of speech to highlight its beauty. We mainly find them in literary texts but they may also be in more everyday texts, such as in the case of sayings and quotes.

For example: It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

What Are the Different Functions of Language - Poetic function

Metalinguistic function

The last function of language is: metalinguistic. This is used to talk about language itself. Definitions of words or clarifications regarding language are an example.

For example: Language: the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

What Are the Different Functions of Language - Metalinguistic function

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1 comment
the different between phatic and directive function language?
OneHowTo Editor
Hi Thando,

The purpose of phatic language is a social function which can be used for greetings or pleasantries, often a part of 'small talk'. Directive function in language is when you provide information in the form of a command or request in order for someone to carry out this directive.
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What Are the Different Functions of Language