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ESOL Courses Online: Daily English Lessons in Words with Multiple Meanings

From Sophia, published on 22/08/2017 Blog > Languages > ESOL (English) > Learn English Online: Multi-Function Words

Dear Esl student;

We all know how tricky English grammar can be. English vocabulary is at times even more treacherous!

That is why we offer our second installment of daily English learning on the subject of words that serve dual purposes.

As diligent as you are about learning English, we are sure you already know all about homographs – words that are written the same but are pronounced differently.

This article does not address homographs, homonyms or homophones. However, you can refer to this sheet should there be any confusion over which is which.

So, what do we mean by double-function words? Read on to find out!


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Before and After

This pair of time indicators can by one of three types of words, depending on where in the sentence they are placed.

Before and After can be conjunctions, prepositions or adverbs. Before and After change type, depending on how they are used. Source: Pixabay Credit: PhotoEditing


Before I enroll in further English courses in London, I want to see if I can study English online.

I will call you after I finish my reading comprehension exercise.

When before/after precede or follow the clause they depend on, they are conjunctions.

However, when they come before a noun or pronoun, they are considered prepositions, as in these examples:

I will sit for IELTS before Jack will.

I want to enroll in business English courses in London after I pass my ESOL exam.

Finally: when used independent of any clause and away from pronouns and nouns, this sneaky pair of words are considered adverbs.

Have you ever said a sentence like this?

I have chatted with native English speakers before.

Before describes when you’ve chatted, therefore it is an adverb.

Here is an example, using after:

Someone on the bus kept sneezing. Shortly after, I began to feel sick.

Can you think of a few examples for each of before/after’s three forms?

Learn more about English Grammar Clauses in our dedicated blog.

Nouns as Adjectives

You surely learned how to make adverbs out of adjectives in your basic English classes. Although that is a type of dual-function word, it is not exactly the type we are talking about.

Adding the suffix -ly to an adjective changes the word enough for it to qualify as an independent word, with a function of its own.

This particular group of words does not fit into the category now being discussed. Like homonyms they have the same spelling and pronunciation, but unlike homonyms they keep the same meaning – homonyms change meaning.

Are you an English learner or an Esl teacher?

In this sentence, English and Esl – although generally nouns, both function as adjectives, describing the learner and the teacher, respectively.

Bonus Lesson: when one noun clearly functions as an adjective modifying another noun, no hyphen is needed. However, when the two nouns are in equal standing – have equal weight and value in the sentence, you must write a hyphen between them.

For example:

English teachers at my language school are hand-picked.

In this sentence, English modifies – helps define what type of teacher; therefore it gets no hyphen.

However, hand and picked have equal importance in giving meaning, therefore they are joined by a hyphen.

As though nouns acting as adjectives were not tricky enough, there are rules for when to write these compound word phrases separately, with a hyphen or together, as one word. See the sentence below:

You should be present for every school day during every school year, but your schoolmates and schoolteacher might miss a day here and there. Nevertheless, everyone completes their schoolwork.

This example uses the noun-turned-adjective five different times, but only twice is school written separately from its partner noun.

Adjectives as Nouns

If nouns can describe other nouns, then adjectives can also serve as nouns.

Students of English as a second language participated in feeding the homeless.

Homeless is traditionally used as an adjective to describe someone who has no home but, in this case, that word names everyone who has no home.

The general rule is that, if you can put an article in front of an adjective, it can serve as a noun, like so:

The English are proud of their writing skills.

It is understood that expressions using adjectives as nouns are plural. Therefore the verb tense is usually third person plural.

Find out more about English language style and form in our dedicated blog.

Double Function Verbs

If ever there was a sneaky word type in the English language, verbs would be them.

look is a double-function word Are these men looking at something, or just looking good? Source: Pixabay Credit: Komposita


As though learning to conjugate and use regular and irregular verbs in all sixteen tenses were not enough of a challenge, verbs can be: linking or action, transitive or intransitive, modal or auxiliary.

Of course, any given verb can be modal, action or auxiliary. This installment of studying English involves those that can be either linking or action, transitive or intransitive – depending on how they are used.

Sean looked at his English writing assignment for a long time.

In this case, Sean is actively doing something, therefore look is an action verb.

Sean looked so good at Esol practice class!

Here, Sean is not performing any action; looked links Sean to good.

The list of verbs that can be either linking or action include:

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

Can you write a linking and an action sentence for each one?

When speaking English, it hardly matters that the verb is either linking or action, only that you use it correctly. However, this next set of verbs is critical to understand.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Your early English lessons taught you that the standard sentence format is: subject-verb-object.

What was perhaps not mentioned is that those verbs are all transitive – meaning: they can have a direct object.

The difference between these two types of verbs are their ability to act on objects.

Alan practises his English language skills every day.

Practise is a transitive verb because it has a direct object: language skills.

Sheila slept through her spoken English class.

Slept is an intransitive verb because it has no object.

The best way to find out if a verb is transitive is to ask what? or who? after the subject-verb portion of the sentence.

Sheila slept what? – as this sentence is not correct, we find that slept must be intransitive.

Be aware that some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending on usage.

Tony demonstrated his proficiency in English for Business.

Cathy demonstrated at the protest.

Which one is transitive?

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a partial list of verb that can/cannot have a direct object.

Perhaps you have another source to help you determine which verbs can be both transitive and intransitive.

The Ultimate Function-Changing Word: Up

  • At a meeting, why does a topic come UP?
  • Why do we speak UP, stand UP, and put UP or shut UP?
  • Why are politicians UP for election?
  • Why is it UP to the secretary to write UP the meeting minutes?
  • We ring UP our friends, brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver, warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen.
  • We lock UP the house and fix UP the old car.

This two-letter word has more meanings and functions than most other English words.

Up is listed in the dictionary as an adverb, adjective, a preposition and a verb.

To be knowledgeable about the many uses of this word, you should look the word UP in your dictionary.

The Debate: Is This Depth of Knowledge Necessary?

Native English speakers learn their language by copying their adults’ mouth movements and sounds. Little to no thought is given to the intricacies of grammar until the student is well-entrenched into his/her academic career.

Learning grammar is essential to using English properly You do not need to know every engine part in order to drive a car. Source: Pixabay Credit: Krzysiek

In early education, the emphasis is placed on proper pronunciation, and reading and writing skills; language learning itself happens as a matter of course.

By contrast, non native English speakers delve deeply into grammar rules. In some parts of the world, students are given little opportunity to exercise their English grammar skills.

Listening skills are, for the most part, developed independently through students’ sheer determination and hard work.

One does not need to understand how an engine functions in order to operate a motor vehicle.

Just as you don’t need to know the function of a spark plug or piston in order to qualify for a driving licence; you probably don’t need to know whether a verb is transitive or intransitive in order to conjugate it and use it correctly.

To make our point, we expand on last article’s introductory quote: if vocabulary is the building blocks of the English language, then grammar must surely be the mortar that holds it together.

Maybe it is not necessary to know why some words serve more than one function in order to speak English properly, but if you want a strong foundation for your English language skills, then you must improve your English by knowing every nut and bolt that holds it together.

Learn how English grammar has changed over the years here.


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