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Concourse 2

Conjunction

chain


define

Definitions

Authorities do not fully agree about a number of areas of English grammar.  Conjunction is one of those.  What follows is, therefore, debatable in places but with the intention of providing working definitions to help language teachers analyse, explain and plan.

different

Conjunction vs. Conjunct

Consider these four, focusing on the bits in black.

  1. I was very late but managed to catch up.
  2. I came late.  However, I managed to catch up
    or
    I managed, however, to catch up.
  3. I went home because I felt unwell.
  4. I felt unwell.  Consequently, I went home.

What happens if you remove the bits in black?  Click here when you have an answer.


joining

Types of conjunctions

There are 3 sorts of conjunction in this list.  Can you separate them into three classes, two of each?  Click here when you have.

whether ... or, but, because, if, not only ... but (also), so

We can take these one at a time.

cogs

Coordinating conjunctions

These function to join two clauses of equal weight or value.  Some coordinating conjunctions can join two words, two phrases or two clauses.  They can all be used to join two clauses.  There are, in fact, only eight of them in modern English and four of them are quite formal and rare.
They are: and, but, yet, for, so, so that, nor and or.
Think for a moment about what these do and then click here for the answer.

The grammar

  1. These conjunctions must come between the two joined items.
  2. Parts of the second item are often elided in sentences with or and nor, e.g.:
        I don't want to go nor hear about it
        She will write to him or telephone
  3. The conjunction and is conventionally elided (or replaced by commas) in lists of more than two items (words, phrases and clauses).  This is called asyndetic coordination (a term your learners don't need) and also occurs for stylistic effect between adverbs and adjective as in, e.g.
        Slowly, cautiously he climbed the ridge
        Happy, relaxed at last, he went to bed.
    Syndetic coordination, on the other hand would have:
        Happy and relaxed at last, he went to bed

Coordination of clauses is not as simple as the list above implies.  For more, see the guide to clausal coordination, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


correlate

Correlative conjunctions

These conjunctions serve to bind ideas closely together.  In that sense many of them function as coordinators and are, in fact, often seen as a subset of those.  They are, in fact, not all coordinating conjunctions but many are.  The ones that are coordinators join two clauses or other items of equal weight and value.
Others, such as no sooner ... when are purely subordinators
Here's a list of some of the most common ones:

Conjunction Notes Examples
as ... as
  • this is commonly, but not exclusively, used in similes, comparing adjectives, usually
  • inserting just before the first as emphasises the degree of similarity
he's (just) as stupid as he is wilful
as sober as a judge
both ... and the use of both with and is a focusing emphasiser both she and John avoided the subject
hardly ... when/than
  • grammatically, these require inversion if they are fronted because their sense is negative
  • for the same reason, they can't be negated so you can't have, e.g., *No sooner didn't they ...
  • if they are fronted, the second element is normally when but in other positions, than is more frequent
  • these are subordinators
hardly / scarcely / no sooner / barely had I sat down when the phone rang
I had hardly / scarcely / no sooner / barely sat down than the phone rang
scarcely ... than/than
no sooner ... than/when
barely ... when/ than
either ... or denotes exclusion of one possibility either you do it or I will
neither ... nor denotes that both possibilities are excluded I will neither enjoy it nor understand it
if ... then
  • this emphasises the conditionality of the if structure
  • it can be further emphasised with only then
  • then can only be used if the if-clause comes first
  • this is a subordinator when then is omitted
if the weather is fine then I will come
whether ... or
  • this usually sets up a clause which is evaluated as if it were a noun as the subject of a verb
  • it also frequently follows an it-phrase
whether you do it or I do it doesn't matter
it doesn't matter whether you come or not
not only ... but also
  • this functions much like and but is a much more emphatic way to link two clauses, words or phrases
  • because it carries a negative sense, it requires the inversion if not only is fronted
not only did he arrive but he was (also) early
he not only arrived but he was (also) early
rather ... than
sooner ... than
  • these are quite rare and often link two nouns or two adjectives often in fixed or semi-fixed binomials
  • They can also link two clauses
rather dead than red
rather you than me
I'd sooner / rather stay at home than go out in this weather

The grammar

It is worth noting that some of these correlatives are actually rather complex.  In particular:

  1. The issue of inversion with some of them requires attention.
    1. Inversion occurs conventionally with hardly, scarcely, no sooner, barely and not only so we have, e.g.:
          Hardly / Scarcely / No sooner / Barely had I arrived when the phone rang
          Not only does he want too much money, he wants it now
    2. With neither ... nor the inversion occurs with full clauses only in the second element:
          She neither wants to go shopping nor does she want to stay at home
      Even when nor or neither stands alone, the inversion still occurs:
          She doesn't want to go shopping, neither / nor does she want to stay at home.
      See point d., below.
  2. The clause-order constraint with the if ... then construction is important because then can only be inserted in the second clause.
  3. Verb concord is sometimes an issue.  The neither ... nor and either ... or structures conventionally require a singular verb but this is often ignored.  Compare, e.g.:
        Either John or Mary does the cooking
        Either John or the children do (?does) the cooking
        Neither John nor Mary usually comes (?come) early
        Neither the men nor the women is (?are) waiting
    The rule of thumb is that the verb will agree with the second element.  So we get:
        Either the children or the parent needs to be present
    vs.
        Either the parent or the children need to be present
    This can lead to very awkward expressions such as:
        Neither John nor I am (?is, ?are) coming
    which are best avoided by rephrasing.
  4. The choice of or or nor after a negative clauses causes some stylistic problems.  It is acceptable, for example to have:
        She didn't want to come to the theatre, nor did she fancy going to a restaurant
    and
        She didn't want to come to the theatre or fancy going to a restaurant
    and both of those can be re-phrased with the full correlating conjunctions as:
        She didn't either want to come to the theatre or fancy going to a restaurant
    or
        She neither wanted to come to the theatre nor fancied going to a restaurant
    With neither ... nor we need to repeat the past-tense form of the verb because it cannot be assumed from the form of the verb in the first clause.  With either ... or, we can assume that the negative operator didn't applies to both verbs.
    However, it is usually considered wrong to have:
        *She didn't want to come to the theatre nor fancy going to a restaurant
    where the use of nor is considered mistaken or at least stylistically clumsy.
    The rules are:
    1. When the second item is a verb phrase, a noun phrase, an adverb phrase or an adjective phrase then use or, not nor, so we get:
          She hasn’t eaten or drunk anything
          He didn’t study French or German at school
          She never went happily or quickly
          The pie wasn’t well cooked or hot enough
    2. When the second item is a full clause, negation needs to be reiterated because it cannot safely be assumed to carry on from the first clause, use nor, not or:
          The teacher didn’t notice the error, nor did anyone else correct it.
          My students weren’t late to class and nor were most of their colleagues
          She didn’t come happily to the theatre, nor did she enjoy the play when she got there

      and here, too, we have the inversion of operator and verb in the second clause.  Clearly, if a new subject is used for the second verb a new clause rather than verb phrase is inevitable so nor is the only option.
  5. The position of the optional also in not only but (also) construction causes problems.  With this construction, the two parts need to be in the same syntactical position.  We can have, therefore:
        We have not only the money but (also) the time
    with both items preceding the object noun phrases
        She not only broke her leg in two places but also cut her head badly
    with both items preceding the verb phrases
    Compare the clumsy (if not wrong):
        ?We not only have the money but also the time
        ?She broke not only her leg in two places but also cut her head badly

Subordinating conjunctions

There is a separate guide to clausal subordination, linked in the list below, which covers some of the following but takes a slightly different approach to categorisation.

There are many subordinating conjunction and they are more complex in both structure and meaning.  They join clauses.

They differ from coordinating conjunctions in that they are not used to join clauses of equal value but to indicate that one clause is subordinate to or dependent for its meaning on the other (hence the name).
If you would like to know more about Matrix and Subordinating clauses, go to the guide to clause structure.
Here's the list:

Type Conjunctions Examples
Concession
indicate that the speaker/writer is conceding a point
  • though
  • although
  • even though
  • while
although / even though / though it's raining, I'll take a walk
while I understand the point, I still disagree
Comparison / Contrast
compare items or clauses and contrast ideas
  • than
  • rather ... than
  • whether
  • as much as
  • whereas
  • while
  • whilst
she is younger than I am
I would rather go than stay
I don't know whether he's serious or trying to be funny
as much as she loves him, she won't stay
I prefer to stay at home while she prefers eating out
I had eaten whereas they went hungry
Time
indicate the relationship in time of two clauses, one determined by the other
  • after
  • as long as
  • as soon as
  • before
  • by the time
  • now that
  • once
  • since
  • till
  • until
  • when
  • whenever
  • while
she came after the party had finished
they stayed as long as it lasted
I showered before I had lunch
I will have finished by the time you arrive
I have lived here since I was a child
whenever I ask him, he avoids the subject
Reason
indicate the causal connections between acts or states
  • because
  • since
  • so that
  • in order (that)
  • †in order to (often contracted to 'to')
  • why
  • lest
  • for fear that
I left because he arrived
I'll tell you, since you ask
he was not smiling so that she would believe him
this is the reason why I dislike it
I took an umbrella lest it rain
She left early for fear that she would miss her train
Manner
show behavioural links between clauses
  • how
  • as though
  • as if
I did it how I was told to do it
he speaks as though / if he is the boss
Place
show locational links
  • where
  • wherever
I will stay where / wherever I like
Condition
show how one clause depends on the fulfilment of another
  • if
  • only if
  • whether
  • unless
  • provided / providing (that)
  • supposing (that)
  • assuming (that)
  • even if
  • in case (that)
if it's raining we'll go home
only if you promise will I accept
supposing he declines, what will you say?
even if he does say no, I'll go ahead
she brought her car lest there were no taxis around
I don't know whether I dare ask

† Strictly speaking, in order to is not a subordinating conjunction but it fulfils a subordinating function so is included here.  It is actually a complex preposition which introduces a non-finite, subjectless infinitive clause.  Misleadingly, it is sometimes called the infinitive of purpose.

The grammar

The greatest difference between coordination and subordination is clause ordering:

  1. Coordinating conjunctions
    1. fit between clauses only.  You can't have:
          *And I had lunch I had tea
      .
    2. with simple additive coordinators, we can often reverse the order of the clauses without damaging the sense.
          I like him and he is my friend
      is the same as
          He is my friend and I like him
      (although speakers front items for a purpose; for more, try the guide to fronting, linked below).
    3. with some coordinators, the clause ordering carries the meaning.  Compare
          I was bored so I went to the cinema
      with
          I went to the cinema so I was bored.
  2. Subordinating conjunctions
    1. allow more leeway in clause ordering and their positions.  We can have
          If you see him, say hello for me
      and
          Say hello for me if you see him
      with equivalent meanings (although, again, speakers front items for a purpose).
    2. however, reversing the ordering of clauses requires us to move the conjunction which is attached to the subordinate clause, too.  We can have
          She took a coat because it was raining
      and
          Because it was raining she took a coat
      but
          It was raining because she took a coat
      is not what we mean at all.

There are separate guides to coordination and subordination on this site which go into much more detail and both are linked below.  There is also a short guide to coordination vs. subordination, linked below.

Some other notes on the subordinating conjunctions:

  1. the concessives all mean pretty much the same thing but while cannot be used if there is a chance of ambiguity so we would not normally encounter
        while it is raining, I'll take a walk
    because that might imply something like
        when it is raining
    rather than
        although it is raining
  2. some comparison subordinators also refer to time:
        I came as soon as I could
    etc.
  3. some words used as time subordinators are prepositions in other environments.  E.g., in
        I showered before lunch
    the word before is a preposition and since, after, until, till can act similarly.  For more, see the guide to prepositions of time, linked below.
  4. there are a number of conjunctions which have an optional that with no change in meaning: now that, considering that, seeing that etc.
  5. elision or substitution of verbs with pro-forms in the second clause is quite common:
        she went because I did (go)
        is she being serious or (is she) not (being serious)?
  6. some analyses add in the relative pronouns because they function as conjunctions.  This site has a separate guide to relative pronoun clauses, linked below.

equivalent

Equivalent conjuncts

The meaning and function of most conjunctions of all types can be expressed using conjuncts (i.e., connectors which lie outside the clause structure).  Conjuncts connect full sentences rather than making connections between clauses within sentences.
There is a guide to adverbials, linked below, on this site which includes more consideration of conjuncts.

So, for example, we can have the same ideas expressed in two ways:

conjunction conjunct
I asked to see him but he was busy. I asked to see him.  However, he was busy.
He is overbearing and people find him boorish. He is overbearing.  Moreover, people find him boorish.
She was smiling so he believed she was not serious. She was smiling.  He consequently believed she was not serious.

A common error is for learners (and native speakers) to use conjuncts when they need a conjunction and vice versa.  As you can see from the examples above, the grammar needs to be adjusted in order to make them even near equivalents.  So we get, for example:
    *I asked to see him, however he was busy
    *I had lunch moreover it was delicious
    *She was smiling, consequently he believed she was not serious
It is possible to make these sentences work by inserting a semi-colon after the first clause.
Conjuncts are usually more emphatic and, of course, do a great deal else in the language.


classroom

Classroom implications

The above may look (and is slightly) all rather theoretical but there are significant implications for teaching.

Think for a moment about what these might be and then click here.



Related guides
coordination vs. subordination these three guides all consider the role of conjunctions.  Start with the first one if the area is new to you.
coordination
subordination
adverbials for more considerations of adjuncts, conjuncts and disjuncts
fronting for a guide to this important area
prepositions of time for the guide
relative pronoun clauses to see how relative pronouns function as conjunctions
a classified list of conjunctions for a simple list in PDF format (new tab or window)


There is, if you can face it, a test on some of this.