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Concourse 2

Subordination and Coordination

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There are separate guides to coordination and subordination on this site but this is the first place to come in this area because the attempt here is to separate the ideas before getting in to an analysis of each.
The three guides in this area also deal with a number of issues covered in more detail elsewhere such as conditionality and concession.  You can track other guides to the area via the section on syntax: phrases, clauses and sentences.

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Subordination vs. Coordination

This is the traditional analysis and one which you will find in many teachers' grammars and those written for learners.  It is only accurate as far as it goes.

  • Coordination involves the joining together of two potentially independent clauses.  For example:
    I was unhappy and I left
    I was unhappy but I stayed
    She was unhappy so she left
    She can stay or she can leave
    Two things to notice:
    • In all these cases, the coordinating conjunction (hereinafter simply coordinator) can be replaced by and or removed altogether and leave two independent clauses (although some sense is lost, the new simple sentences remain comprehensible and grammatically acceptable).
      I was unhappy.  I left.
      I was unhappy.  I stayed.
      She was unhappy.  She left.
      She can stay.  She can leave.
    • It is not possible to move the coordinating conjunction and an attempt to do so results in ungrammaticality:
      *And I was unhappy I left
      *But I stayed I was unhappy
      *So she left she was unhappy
      *Or she can stay she can leave

      The coordinator must come between the two clauses which are being joined together to make a compound sentence.
  • Subordination, on the other hand, is an asymmetrical relationship between two clauses with one, as the name suggests, being subordinate to and relying on an independent clause for its meaning.  For example:
    I left because I was unhappy
    I stayed although I was unhappy
    She left since she was unhappy
    She can either stay or she can leave
    Two things to notice:
    • Only one of the clauses can stand alone (i.e., function independently) and make a grammatically acceptable sentence.
      I left.  *Because I was unhappy.
      I stayed.  *Although I was unhappy.
      She left.  *Since she was unhappy.
      *She can either stay.  She can leave.
    • The subordinating conjunction (hereinafter simply subordinator) can be moved because it is an adjunct and forms part of the subordinate clause.
      Because I was unhappy, I left
      Although I was unhappy, I left
      Since she was unhappy, she left
      Either she can stay or she can leave

The difference between subordination and coordination can be very simply illustrated like this:

co- and sib-ordination

If you have followed the guide to clause structure, you will know that an alternative analysis is to consider the independent clause as the matrix in which a subordinate clause or clauses can be embedded.


It can get complicated

The structure of complex sentence (i.e., one involving subordination rather than coordination) can be very complicated so we may have, for example:

She came home because the dogs needed feeding but discovered that there was no food for them so she had to go out to the supermarket and get some before she could relax in order to finish the book she was reading so that she could take part sensibly in the reading circle at the weekend.

In that (made up) sentence there are instances of both coordination and subordination.

An independent clause may itself be coordinated:
She came home and she cooked a huge meal because she was so hungry
(Two coordinated independent clauses with the second having a subordinate clause)
and subordinate clauses may be coordinated, too:
She came home and she cooked a huge meal because she was so hungry and she hadn't eaten lunch
(Two coordinated independent clauses with the second having a subordinate clause which is also coordinated)
and subordinate clauses can have their own subordinate clauses:
She came home and she cooked a huge meal because she was so hungry since she hadn't eaten lunch
(Two coordinated independent clauses with the second having a subordinate clause which itself has a subordinate clause)

and so on, ad infinitum.


The range of conjunctions

The difference between coordinator and subordinators is actually a rather more complicated matter than the analysis so far has revealed.

There is, in fact a cline between those that we can consider true coordinators and those which can only ever be used as subordinators.  There are a number of criteria for identifying the nature of coordinators which are discussed in the guide to coordination.

In some analyses, there are the following coordinating conjunctions:
and, or, but, so, for (in its meaning of because), yet, nor and so that.
All other conjunctions are either correlative or subordinators.
The guide to coordination makes it clear, however, that only and, or and but (probably) meet the criteria for true coordinators and the rest are in some way defective.

The true picture is more like:

coordination and subordination

Related guides
coordination to consider how clauses of equal weight are joined
subordination to consider how unequal or dependent clauses are joined
conjunction for an overview of the ways clauses can be linked
adverbials a guide explaining adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts