There can be no doubt that language is a living entity that changes over time. One example of how a language changes is the functional shift. Basically, a functional shift occurs when a word that is already identified and used extensively in one manner begins to acquire a second use that is of a completely different nature in both the spoken and the written word. Here are a couple of examples of how a change in syntax can lead to a functional shifts that over time become acceptable components in the common grammar of the day.
One fairly common occurrence with the event of a functional shift is that a word that is normally identified as a noun beginning to take on usage as a verb, or vice versa. There are a number of examples of this type of functional shift. Commute is only one of many words that can be used as both a verb and a noun today. As a noun, a commute refers to a journey or trip that is taken. As a verb, commute can refer to the act of taking that trip, as well as foregoing something, such as commuting a sentence or an obligation.
A functional shift can also occur when a preposition that is normally used in comparisons begins to find usage in the form of a subordinating conjunction. The word “like” is a classic example of this type of metamorphosis. As a preposition, “like” can be used to compare the action of one thing to another. As an example, “he runs like a horse” helps to compare the running habits of one living entity to the running prowess of a different live animal. At the same time, the word “like” may be used to suggest intent. “He sounds like he means it” carries the same meaning as stating “he sounds as if he means it.”
One of the fascinating things about linguistics in general is that the science of languages is a discipline that is forever evolving. No language has ever remained static for very long. As generations pass, words that once held only one meaning and style of usage in the written and spoken word will begin to take on other applications. The occurrence of the functional shift is recognition of that evolution, and one of the characteristics of a living language that keep our chief means of communication exciting and fresh.