25) The conjunction

The conjunction

Conjunctions are words which join, or combine, words, or groups of words, together. They are called conjunctions because they ‘conjoin’ words, the definition of which is:

‘join; combine’

By doing this they allow more complex sentences, and a more economical way of communicating. There are two main types: coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions, which it is probably best to explore at the same time.

1) Coordinating and subordinating conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join, or combine, words, phrases and independent clauses with other words, phrases or independent clauses which we want to emphasise in equal measure. The coordinating conjunctions are:

‘and’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘nor’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’

A simple example would be:

John ate an apple, and Jane ate a pear.

Here the independent clause ‘John ate an apple’ is joined to the independent clause ‘Jane ate a pear’ by the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. Both clauses have just as much emphasis as the other, and are simply linked together in equal rank. The most difficult thing about conjunctions is probably understanding the idea of linking based on equal emphasis. Let’s look at their counterparts – subordinating conjunctions – to make this clearer.

The other type of conjunction is a subordinating conjunction, which links an independent clause (often called a main clause) with a dependent clause (often called subordinate clause). In other words, it links a clause which can stand alone (independent), with one which is dependent on the one that can stand alone. For this reason, a sentence with a subordinating conjunction has one clause which takes precedent over the other, while one with a coordinating conjunction doesn’t. Let’s look at some examples:

Sentence with a coordinating conjunction: ‘John ate an apple, and Jane ate a pear.’

Sentence with a subordinating conjunction: ‘John ate an apple because Jane had eaten his pear.’

As we just said, in the coordinating conjunction sentence we see the independent clause ‘John ate an apple’ joined with the other independent clause ‘Jane ate a pear’. We can see that neither of these are given precedence over the other; they are just two things that both happened. Because they are two unrelated things, we can look at them both as separate independent clauses. Imagine getting rid of the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ and replacing it with a full stop, to signify the end of a complete thought:

John ate an apple, and Jane ate a pear.

John ate an apple. Jane ate a pear.

Notice how no meaning has been lost from the original sentence when we replace the coordinating conjunction with a full stop. This is because the two separate thoughts are not reliant on each other. This is something that can be done with sentences linked by coordinating conjunctions, but not by those linked by subordinating conjunctions.

In the subordinating conjunction sentence the independent, or main, clause, ‘John ate an apple’ is joined with the dependent, or subordinate, clause, ‘ because Jane had eaten his pear’ via the subordinating conjunction ‘because’. Here we can see that ‘John ate an apple’ is given precedence over ‘Jane had eaten his pear’. However, there is something very confusing about this sentence and the explanation I gave earlier. As we saw before, ‘John ate an apple’ is a main, or independent clause. However, why is ‘Jane had eaten his pear’ a subordinate, or dependent clause? After all, can’t ‘Jane had eaten his pear’ be a sentence alone? It is a good question, and the best way to answer it seems to be to try replacing the subordinating conjunctions ‘because’ with a full stop, as before:

John ate an apple because Jane had eaten his pear.

John ate an apple. Jane had eaten his pear

We can see that when we take away the subordinating conjunction that some meaning is lost from the sentence. Whereas previously John ate an apple directly because Jane had eaten his pear (which implies he wanted the pear, but ate the apple because that was his second choice), in the second sentence two sentences without ‘because’ they are now unrelated. We know that John ate an an apple and that Jane ate his pear, but we no longer know John ate the apple because his pear had been eaten.

This all means that the sentence needs to keep the subordinating conjunction ‘because’ to keep its meaning. Therefore, we now have two clauses:

1) Main/independent clause: ‘John ate an apple’

2) Subordinate/ dependent clause: ‘because Jane had eaten his pear’

Now we can see that the main clause ‘John ate an apple’ is being joined with the subordinate clause ‘because Jane had eaten his pear’. The latter is subordinate/independent because it doesn’t stand alone as a sentence; ‘because Jane had eaten his pear’ needs a main clause to finish it, even though it does have a subject (Jane) and a verb (eaten). We could put in a main clause before or after it, to make it make sense, as in:

John ate an apple because Jane had eaten his pear.

Because Jane had eaten his pear, John ate an apple.

Let’s look at some more examples:,

Sentence with a coordinating conjunction: ‘The weather was sunny in the South, but it was cloudy in the North.’

Sentence with a subordinating conjunction: ‘The festival will be great if the locals don’t complain about the noise.’

The sentence with the coordinating conjunction joins the independent clause ‘The weather was sunny in the South’ with the other independent clause ‘it was cloudy in the North’ by using the coordinating conjunction ‘but’. Neither takes precedence over the other; they are merely both stated and linked together. Again, let’s imagine them with just a full stop in the middle instead of the coordinating conjunction

The weather was sunny in the South, but it was cloudy in the North.

The weather was sunny in the South. It was cloudy in the North.

This retains the meaning because the coordinating conjunction ‘but’ was just linking two equally important sentences.

Now let’s look at the subordinating conjunction sentence:

The festival will be great if the locals don’t complain about the noise.

This subordinating conjunction sentence links the independent clause ‘The festival will be great’ with the subordinate/dependent clause ‘the locals don’t complain about the noise’ via the subordinating conjunction ‘if’. Again, the subordinate clause ‘the locals don’t complain about the noise’ can actually stand alone as a main/independent clause or complete thought. However, by showing the sentence without the subordinating conjunction ‘if’ we see that it wouldn’t have it’s full meaning:

The festival will be great if the locals don’t complain about the noise

The festival will be great. The locals don’t complain about the noise

In fact, the sentence ‘The locals don’t complain about the noise’ has a different meaning altogether now. It has gone from being a condition in ‘if the locals don’t complain about the noise’ to a statement that ‘The locals don’t complain about the noise.’ So, to keep the meaning, we have to keep the subordinating conjunction ‘if’ in the middle, which gives us a main clause (‘the festival will be great’) with a subordinate one (‘if the locals don’t complain about the noise’):

1) Main/independent clause: ‘The festival will be great’

2) Subordinate/ dependent clause: ‘if the locals don’t complain about the noise’

Now we can see that the main clause ‘The festival will be great’ is being joined with the subordinate clause ‘if the locals don’t complain about the noise’. The latter is subordinate/dependent because it doesn’t stand alone as a sentence; ‘if the locals don’t complain about the noise’ needs a main clause to finish it, even though it does have a subject (the locals) and a verb (complain). We could put in a main clause before or after it, to make it make sense, as in:

The festival will be great if the locals don’t complain about the noise.

If the locals don’t complain about the noise the festival will be great.

2) Conjunctive adverbs

We just looked at these in adverbs. However, now we know more about conjunctions, let’s repeat that lesson again, with our new knowledge.

Conjunctions are words which join groups of words together. Conjunctive adverbs (a list of common ones can be found here) are a specific type of conjunction that link together independent clauses. They are liable to cause confusion because the words in this group can be used both as standard adverbs, or as conjunctive adverbs. When they are used as simple adverbs, they modify a verb, adjective or adverb. However, when they are used as conjunctive adverbs, they do not. Let’s look at some examples:

He usually hated seafood; however, he was going to try some tonight.

Here the conjunctive adverb ‘however’ is connecting the independent clause:

‘He usually hated seafood’

with the other independent clause:

‘he was going to try some tonight’

‘However’ is not acting here to modify a verb, adjective or adverb alone, but instead working on connecting two entire clauses.

Now look at this example:

However painful the marathon was going to be, he was going to finish it.

Here, ‘however’ is working as an adverb by modifying the adjective ‘painful’. However, it isn’t working as a conjunctive adverb because it isn’t linking two independent clauses together. So, as I understand it, this is simply called an adverb, not a conjunctive adverb.

This is obviously confusing terminology. The conjunctive adverbs link two independent clauses together, but don’t actually work as adverbs (which modify a verb, adjective or other adverb). As we have just seen, there are actually names for conjunctions which do this: coordinating conjunctions. It is not so confusing in the second example, where a word which does modify a verb, adjective or other adverb is called an adverb. So why are conjunctive adverbs not just called coordinating conjunctions?

The first answer seems to be that they have the ability to be both an adverb and a conjunction, so this distinguishes them from the other coordinating conjunctions. Some examples of coordinating conjunctions are ‘and’ and ‘but’ – both of which can’t work as adverbs. So there is a distinction in the ability of conjunctive adverbs to be coordinating conjunctions in some situations, and adverbs in others.

The second answer relates to structure. One other likely reason why conjunctive adverbs have been differentiated from coordinating conjunctions is their position within the clause. If the clause has a conjunction in it, the conjunction has to be directly in between the two clauses such as:

She was happy, and she was loved.

Here the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ cannot be placed anywhere else in the sentence as in:

She was happy she and was loved. (incorrect)

She was happy she was and loved. (incorrect)

She was happy she was loved and. (incorrect)

However, conjunctive adverbs have much more freedom. They can be moved around within the clause they are linking to. For example:

She was loved; consequently, she was happy.

She was loved; she, consequently, was happy.

She was loved; she was, consequently, happy.

She was loved; she was happy, consequently.

These two reasons are as clear as an answer as I can see for conjunctive adverbs being called adverbs. I have also read that words for which there is no other category are sometimes arbitrarily called adverbs, for convenience. I don’t think that is the case here though, because, if you look up a conjunctive adverb in the dictionary, you should find that they have two word types they can be: adverbs or conjunctions. Actually, it doesn’t appear the dictionary states all of them as conjunctions, but usually seems to state them as adverbs. The point here is that they don’t generally appear to be used in any other word class other than adverbs or conjunctions, which perhaps led to the term ‘conjunctive adverb’ rather than, say, ‘conjunctive noun’ or ‘conjunctive adjective’.

3) Correlative conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions connect similar constructions by working in pairs.

For example:

The best film was either the first one or the third one.

Here the correlative conjunctions ‘either’ and ‘or’ are being used to connect the two similar noun phrases ‘the first one’ and ‘the third one’.

Another example is:

I love both apples and oranges.

Here the correlative conjunctions ‘both’ and ‘and’ are being used to connect the two nouns ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’.

Another example is:

Not only do the staff hate Mondays, but they also hate Tuesdays too.

Here the correlative conjunctions ‘not only’ and ‘but also’ are linking the similar independent clauses ‘do the staff hate Mondays’ and ‘they hate Tuesdays’

One final example is:

Whether in my own clothes or in my work uniform, I will get through the barrier.

Here we have the correlative constructions ‘whether’ and ‘or’ linking the prepositional phrases ‘in my own clothes’ and ‘in my work uniform’.

4) Questions

1) Explain subordinating and coordinating conjunctions.

2) Explain conjunctive adverbs.

3) Explain correlative conjunctions.

That is all for conjunctions. Let’s look at prepositions next.

NEXT: 26) The preposition

Posted in English Grammar