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Concourse 2

Clausal coordination


It would be useful if you have followed the initial guide in this area which distinguishes between coordination and subordination.  Other relevant guides can be tracked via the index to syntax: clauses, phrases and sentences.


The core coordinators: and, or, but

Traditionally, the coordinators in English are identified as and, or and but.  To that list, some would add for (in its meaning of because), yet, so, nor and so that.  All other conjunctions then fall into the class of correlators or subordinators.  However, there are differences hidden in this simplicity which are important.

It is a simple enough matter to place the conjunctions and and or firmly in the camp of coordinators proper for a number of reasons revealed by the structure of the sentences in which they occur.  Here they are:

  1. They can join two subordinate clause as well as two main clauses.  We can have:
        John came home and cooked a meal
    with two main clauses, the subject elided from the second
        Because John was so tired when he came home, he decided not to cook and went straight to bed
    with a main clause and two subordinate clauses connected with and
    We can also have:
        He'll arrive late or he'll be very early
    with two main clauses in which it is optional to elide the verb phrase (He'll arrive late or very early))
        If the train times are awkward, John will arrive late or he'll be very early
    with a main clause and two subordinate clauses joined by or)
    Other conjunctions can't do this:
    *John was tired because it was late because he had been working
    must be re-phrased:
    John was tired because it was late and because he had been working
  2. The clause which begins with the conjunction is fixed and its position cannot be disturbed.  We can have:
        John came home and he cooked a meal
        I'll take the train or John can give me a lift

    but not
        *And he cooked a meal John came home
        *Or John can give me a lift I'll take the train
    This is not true for other conjunctions:
        Although he was tired he gave me a lift home
        He gave me a lift home although he was tired
    where the reversal of the clauses results in no loss of meaning, although the emphasis is slightly different.
  3. These conjunction cannot be preceded by another conjunction.  It is not possible to have:
        *John gave me a lift but and he was tired
    This is not true for other conjunctions:
        John gave me a lift although he was tired and although it was late
        He gave me a lift because it was late or because he took pity on me
  4. We can leave out the subject if it refers to the same entity.  It is possible to have:
        John came home and cooked a meal
        John went on holiday or took a break at home
    eliding the subject the second time in both examples.
    This is not true for all other conjunctions:
        *He took the train because the weather was cold and because was wet.
  5. These conjunctions can link multiple main clauses and, when they do, we can omit the conjunction altogether until the end:
        I'll take the train, I'll catch a bus, I'll hitchhike or I'll drive.
        He came home, fed the cat, cooked a meal, ate it in front of the television and went to bed
    This is not true for other conjunctions:
        *He gave me the money, he had been to the bank, I needed it then because I asked him.

Of the core coordinators, the conjunction but is slightly anomalous.  It satisfies 4 of the 5 criteria above but not number 5.  It cannot be used to link multiple clauses and only appear before the last.  We cannot have:
    *He called, I was out, the telephone was not working but the neighbour took a message.


The other 5 coordinators: for, so that, so, yet, nor

That's all OK for the three core coordinators and, or, but.  What about the other five?

The conjunction for to mean because is now quite rare except in formal and academic writing.  In this sense, it shares some of the characteristics of the three core coordinators.
We can't leave out the subject (criterion 4):
We can have:
    I didn't tell her for I knew she would be angry
but not:
    *I didn't tell her for knew she would be angry
It can't link two subordinate clauses (criterion 1):
    *Before he spoke to her he decided not to tell her for she would be angry.
It can't be left out in a string of clauses (criterion 5):
    *He got up early, caught the first train for be in good time
The conjunction can meet two of the other criteria for coordinators:
Clauses beginning with for are fixed in position:
We can have:
    He made an excuse for he was really quite late
but not:
    *For he was really quite late, he made an excuse

We cannot have another conjunction before for:
    *He told her but for she needed to know
The phrase has two distinct meanings:
  1. Resultative: Here it means much the same as so and is also much less common.  It is a coordinator only in this sense.
        The garden was covered in snow so that he could see the footprints clearly.
    When so that is used in this way, it shares the characteristics set out above for the conjunction for.
    It cannot be preceded by another conjunction:
        *The garden was covered in snow and so that he could see the footprints clearly.
    The clause it is part of cannot be moved:
        *So that the garden was covered in snow he could see the footprints clearly.
    In this resultative meaning, the conjunction is often replaceable with the simpler so.
  2. Purposive: Here it means much the same as in order that and this is the more common use.  It is a subordinator in this sense and is treated as such in the guide to subordination.
        He arrived early so that he could prepare for the meeting.
        So that he could prepare for the meeting, he arrived early.
    The ability to swap the clauses around with the conjunction moving with the subordinate clause is a sure sign that it is a subordinator in this sense.
  3. Ambiguous: It is possible that some ambiguity may arise.  For example, does:
        Someone stole my car so that I couldn't get to work
    mean that someone stole the car in order to prevent me getting to work (subordinating) or is the result of the theft the fact that I couldn't get to work (coordinating)?
also meet two of the criteria for coordinators but not others.
The clauses they begin are fixed in sequence:
We can have
    I came to the party so I could meet the new boss
    He tried hard yet he failed
    I don't want to see it nor do I want to read about it

but not
    *So I could meet the new boss I came to the party (Compare because in this respect)
    *Yet he tried hard he failed
    *Nor do I want to see it I do not want to read about it
They all, however, allow us to leave out the subject:
    He was angry so didn't listen too carefully
    He didn't want to see nor talk to her
    He was angry yet didn't show it.
is particularly difficult for learners because it requires the use of a question-form word ordering (or inversion) so we have :
    He didn't pay attention nor did he look interested
and not:
    *He didn't pay attention nor he looked interested


Coordination with and

This may seem rather simple, and it often is but there are some elements of coordination with and that exist in English and do not in other languages.
The other issue is the ordering of the clauses.  It is sometimes said that clauses connected with and can usually be reversed with no change in meaning.  For example:
    It is raining and it is cold
can be stated as
    It is cold and it is raining
In fact, reversing the clauses more often than not creates nonsense as we shall see.

It is unusual for two clauses to be connected with and if they do not have something obvious in common.  Compare, for example,
    She is very rich, lives in a large house and drives an expensive car
    She is very rich, lives in a large house and doesn't understand thermodynamics
If one action is seen as a consequence of another, and is often the coordinator of choice, especially in spoken English (it is not in other languages, many of which would reserve a causal conjunction for this role).  For example:
    He saw the accident and called the police
The clauses cannot be reversed without making nonsense.
Again, in English, and is often the coordinator of choice when two events are seen to be chronologically connected.  For example:
    John came home and cooked a meal
Reversing the clauses creates something surprising if not incomprehensible.
Again, many languages would prefer a subordinating time conjunction for this concept.
English speakers will often select and when what follows is seen as a comment on the previous clause.  For example,
    She was furious and I don't blame her
Reversing the clauses creates nonsense.
This can be rephrased using a disjunct such as:
    She was furious.  Rightly so, in my view.
Some languages simply won't do this and will use always a disjunct to express, e.g.:
    She was furious and understandably so.
    She was furious.  Clearly, there was a good reason.
Especially in spoken English, native speakers will often select and in preference to the traditionally taught if-clause.  For example,
    Give me a lift and I'll buy you a drink later
Reversing the clauses creates nonsense.
We often insert then into these sentences after and to create the sense of conditionality.  For example:
    Let's leave now and then we can catch an earlier train
The first clause in such sentences is almost always an imperative or contains a modal verb and the second clause contains a modal verb as in, e.g.:
    We must go quietly and then we won't wake him up
    Let's leave now and then we can take the early train
Again, in many languages some kind of conditional marker (conjunction or mood such as the subjunctive) would be preferred.
Syndetic and Asyndetic coordination
The first of these horrible terms means the inclusion of the coordinator as in, for example:
    Hot and exhausted, he gave up
Asyndetic coordination omits the conjunction and would be:
    Hot, exhausted, he gave up.


Coordination with or

This is again often considered a simple area but languages work slightly differently and what is allowable in English may not be in other languages.

Again, it is often averred that reversing the clauses makes no difference to the sense.  Sometimes, doing so loses little but it should be noted that English speakers will often elect to put the preferred option first.  In some cases, nonsense is created by reversing the clauses.

This is even more important in this case because if the two clauses are not connected, the sense is lost.  For example:
    I can fly or I can take the train
is acceptable, but
    *I can fly or Rome is 400 kilometres away
is not.
In English, or is exclusive.  That means that it connects two mutually incompatible ideas.  This is not the case in some languages.  For example:
    You can walk or I can take you in the car
clearly implies that both possibilities are not allowable.
Even when both possibilities are allowable, English speakers will often make that explicit.  For example,
    You can have the strawberry or the chocolate, or both, of course.
As we saw above with and, the conjunction is often also preferred to a traditional if-clause.  The conjunction or can work similarly but has a negative sense and does not always carry the same imperative force.  For example:
    They obviously didn't enjoy the play or they wouldn't have left early
instead of the complex
    They wouldn't have left early if they had been enjoying the play

The conjunction can also work in conditional threats such as:
    Pay me the money or I'll take you to court
instead of the conditional
    If you don't pay me the money, I'll take you to court
In both these cases, reversing the clauses creates nonsense.


Coordination with but

The coordinator but is often treated simple as a way of stating a contrast.  It often is but there's slightly more to it.  It can, of course be used discoursally to interrupt and present and alternative viewpoint (the yes, but ... event).
It is, however, used in two different ways:

This is the familiar one exemplified in, for example:
    I came to see you but you were out
contrasting hope with reality
    I wanted to finish but the work took longer than I thought
contrasting plan with reality
    It may seem that way but it's actually quite simple
contrasting appearance with reality
and so on.
The clauses can very rarely be sensibly reversed because the contrast is usually expressed in the second clause.
The conjunction can also be a restatement and confirmation of what has come before, implying no real contrast.  For example:
    He didn't rush into to it but gave the move a good deal of thought
    We mustn't assume he'll be late but work on that principle



We saw above that the subject (providing it is the same subject) can be omitted when clauses are joined by some coordinators so we can:

Omit the subject with and, or, nor, so, yet and but:
    John came home and cooked a meal
    She always arrived late or didn't arrive at all
    She hardly spoke nor listened
    He had enough money so stayed in a hotel
    He did very little work yet passed the examination
    She attended the meeting but said little
But we can't do this with for and so that:
    *He was very tall so that could see over my head
    *He told her a lie for knew the truth would hurt
Omit the auxiliary verb if it applies to both main verbs
    She can come and tell us how to do it
    He has had his house painted and his car repaired

    She has welcomed the children but been rude to their parents
Omit the subject and the verb phrase when clauses are coordinated with and, but or or, if it contains an auxiliary and the mood, tense or action is unchanged:
    She can play the piano and the flute
    She can come or go
    It's hot here in July but wet in February
    Peter went to the market and Mary to the pub

We cannot do this with the other conjunctions.
This is often the way in which writers and speakers can create what is called a zeugma when the verb senses do not match.  For example:
    She paid the bill but very little attention
which would normally be considered a joke of some sort.  For more, see the guide to polysemy and homonymy.
Omit the whole of the predicate
    The boss will come to the party and his wife might
    She can cook beautifully but her husband can't
forward and back

Forward and back

Ellipsis is normally anaphoric in these cases and the examples above because the first clause has contained the recoverable data so reference back to it can be made.  For example, in:
    The children came in and sat at the table
it is a simple matter to refer back to the first clause to identify the fact that the children is the subject of sat in the second clause.
Sometimes, complex ellipsis allows us to leave out a section of the clause cataphorically and we must refer forward in the sentence to recover the data as in, for example:
    She can or should do the work
Here, the reader / listener has to refer forward in the sentence to discover the main verb (do).
    They ordered, ate and paid for the food.
In this case, the reader / listener has to refer forward to discover the object of ordered and ate.


Teaching implications

Coordination is often seen as simple, almost too simple to be taught.  It is not.

The ways in which languages deal with coordination are quite variable (although they all do it, of course) so the area needs some careful handling and concept checking.  Here are a few examples:

  • In German, coordination occurs in similar ways to English although the conjunctions used to coordinate equal-weight clauses are different.  The use of and to express consequence or conditionality is vanishingly rare and will confuse German speakers.  For chronologically linked clauses, German will usually insert a temporal conjunction rather than rely on and.  So, a speaker from a Germanic-language background will often prefer the unnatural
        He saw the accident then called the police
    rather than
        He saw the accident and called the police
  • In English, subordination is more common than coordination.  In Arabic the case is reversed so translations of texts from Arabic into English sound simpler than they should be and in reverse they sound more complex than is necessary.
    Unlike the English and, the Arabic wa is repeated before every item coordinated with the one before, no matter how many items are listed.  But the fact of the matter is that the Arabic wa is not one but several particles, each having a different function.
    Coordination is the main key for coherence in Arabic, just like subordination in English.

    (Othman, 2004)
  • In Japanese, the particle to is often considered an equivalent of and but, in fact, it can only be used to coordinate two noun phrases.  Coordination of verb phrases or clauses is much more complex and results in unpredictable outcomes in English.
  • Korean differs from English in that it has very little true coordination.  According to some descriptions of Korean grammar, “[t]he distinction between coordination and subordination is not clear-cut and is a matter of degree”
    ... the ko-construction sometimes behaves as a coordinate structure, and sometimes, as a subordinate one.

    (Polinsky, K and M, n.d)
  • In Spanish, there are a number of reduplicated conjunctions which coordinate clauses and these do not translate easily.  For example,
    bien ... bien and fuera ... fuera are used where English settles for or or either ... or.

and so on.  Languages differ quite dramatically at this level and it is perilous to assume that coordination will be understood and produced with any ease.


Selecting what to teach

It is clearly arguable that the core coordinators, and, but and or should be the focus of teaching at any level.  To that list, most people would add the common coordinator so.
Not all the uses can be tackled at once, of course, and some of them are probably better left until more advanced levels.  These include:

  • the use of and and or to replace conditional structures and the constraints on clause type that we saw above
  • the use of and to introduce a comment instead of the use of a disjunct of some kind
  • The use of but as a confirmation of the previous clause rather than a contrast

There are, however, four main ideas which should be tackled at lower levels:

  1. The need for a commonality between the clauses
  2. The implication of chronological ordering with and (so no reversal of clause ordering)
  3. The idea of and used to express a consequence (so no reversal of clause ordering)
  4. The fact that coordinators must occur between ideas and are integral to either clause in the way that subordinators are not

If we don't focus on these four fundamental ideas, we may encourage errors even though the conjunctions work very similarly across a range of languages.

This leaves the four other coordinators: for, so that, yet and nor.  None of these is particularly common.

  • for, meaning because, is confined to formal texts and should probably only be taught for receptive purposes to those who need to access such texts.
  • so that is rare as a coordinator but common as a subordinator expressing purpose.  It should probably be confined to the latter use as it can almost always be replaced with so in its coordinating role.
  • yet can normally be replaced with but and its use is uncommon.  Again, for receptive purposes it may be worth addressing but it is formal and unusual in speech.
  • nor as a coordinator is also rare and normally replaced by the correlator neither ... nor.  Even for receptive purposes only, it's hard to make a case for teaching it except at quite high levels.  The complication of the word ordering after nor is another reason for avoiding it until then.

Teaching solutions

The solution, as usual, is to ensure two things:

  1. Providing context so that the speaker's meaning is transparent and it is clear e.g.:
    1. whether but is being used to contrast two ideas as in
          I waited for hours but nobody arrived
      or to confirm and support the first idea as in
          He didn't work at all but just lay around watching TV
    2. whether and is being used to join or to perform another function such as suggesting consequence, chronological ordering or conditionality.  For example, in
          He's a student and doesn't have much money
      is a simple logical connector but in:
          Tell him that and he'll get really angry with you
      it is expressing conditionality [If you tell him that he'll be really angry with you]
      but in:
          I heard the bang and went to see what had happened
      the coordinator shows the chronological ordering of events [After I heard the bang I went to see what had happened]
      but in:
          The vase broke and spilled water all over my desk
      the coordinator expresses consequence [Water was spilled all over my desk because the vase broke]
      These uses will affect whether the clauses can safely be reversed.
    3. whether so that and so are being used synonymously or whether the use of so that is coordinating (a resultative) rather than subordinating (a purposive use) in
          The fog was thick so that I couldn't see him clearly (resultative)
          I opened the window so that I could see him clearly
      because this will affect whether the clauses can be shifted around.
  2. Providing co-text so that it is clear what can be elided, what must stay, what can be included and what can be moved to avoid errors such as
    1. *We ate early for knew the restaurant closed at 7
    2. *So I could take a holiday, I saved money carefully
    3. *They drove because the buses are unreliable and but the car broke down

Some comparative work translating in and out of first languages can be productive in this area and raise the learners' awareness of what is and is not possible in English.  To do that successfully, of course you'll have to know or at least know about your learners' first language(s).

Comparisons, too, between acceptable and unsuccessful sentences in English can help learners see how the forms work and be productive.  For example:

Mark the sentences right or wrong and then see if you can say why
Sentence right Why is it wrong?
Help me with this and I'll buy you a drink    
I'll buy you a drink and help me with this  
He telephoned the police and he saw the damage    
He saw the damage and telephoned the police  
He didn't have a holiday but worked to save money for next year    
He had a holiday but worked to save money for next year  
I can get her a present or take her to dinner    
I can get her a present or it is her birthday  
I went to the station so I could see her off    
So I could see her off I went to the station  

There is also a need to be alert to your learners' production and, instead of just noting that there is some kind of syntactical error, consider whether it is caused by false coordination and treat it accordingly.
Often, there is a temptation to fall back on the because-it's-not-English explanation rather than look for a deeper cause.
That cause is often found to be a lack of understanding of coordination.

Try a brief quiz on some of this.

Related guides
subordination for a similar guide to a related area
conjunctions for a general guide to the word class
clauses, phrases and sentences the index for this section
coordination lesson a lesson for higher-level learners
coordination exercise an exercise on coordination for learners (and you)

Othman, W, 2004, Subordination and Coordination in English-Arabic Translation, Al-Basaer, Vol. 8 – No. 2, 2004, pp.12 - 33 available from http://www.translationdirectory.com/article899.htm
Polinsky, K and M, n. d., What does coordination look like in a head-final language?, University of California, San Diego available from http://people.iq.harvard.edu/~nkwon/Papers/Asymmetry_Kwon_Polinsky.pdf
For Spanish: http://www.spanishbooster.com/SpanishConjunctions.htm