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Concourse 2

Conjunctions: the essentials


Warning: this is a complex grammatical area and authorities differ sharply in their analyses.  What follows is an essential guide, not the end of the story by a long, long way.  For more, you should look at the in-service guide to conjunction, linked in the list of related guides below.



A working definition of a conjunction is:

a word used to connect clauses or words within clauses

So, connecting words, we may have:
    She was happy although very tired
and connecting clauses we have:
    She was feeling happy although she was very tired
and in both cases, the conjunction, although, signals a contrasting idea.

think Task:
Can you identify the conjunctions in these examples?
Click on eye when you have an answer.
  1. It was raining but we went for a walk anyway.
  2. There was no bread and no butter.
  3. I came early so I could help you get ready.
  4. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
  5. If you can let me know tomorrow, it would be a great help.
  6. I can give you a lift and I can take the dog, too.


5 things conjunctions can do

Can you classify the conjunctions in the examples above into the following five categories?  Click on the table when you have an answer.

conjunction 1

Conjunctions also perform other functions but for most learners of English the table contains the ones they need.


3 types of conjunctions

Now we know what conjunctions do in sentences, we need to look at their grammar.  In the examples above, we actually have three sorts of conjunction rather than five.
This is a tougher task but can you identify these three types in the example sentences?  Again, click on the table when you have an answer.

conjunction 3

Some notes:

  1. Coordinating conjunctions can only be placed between the clauses they connect.  If we move them, the usual result is nonsense:
        *And spoke to him she came
        *But she was late she came
        *Yet happy he was tired
  2. Subordinating conjunctions on the other had are a bit more mobile.  We can say, e.g.:
        She came because I asked her
        Because I asked her, she came
    with approximately the same meaning (although the emphasis varies).
    However, some subordinating conjunctions require a certain ordering because of the logic of what we are saying.  We can have, therefore:
        He was bored so he went to see his friends
    and we can have:
        He went to see his friends so he was bored
    but the meaning is radically different.
  3. Some of the correlating conjunctions (the ones with a negative implication) sometimes require us to insert a question form so we say:
        Barely had I taken my seat when the play began
    This is called inversion, incidentally (and slightly misleadingly).



Here's a list of some of the most common conjunctions in English, ordered by type, with examples.  Your task is to think of examples of your own so you are sure you understand.

Coordinating conjunctions Example Subordinating conjunctions Example Correlative conjunctions Example
but Not me but Mary because He came because I asked whether ... or I'll say it whether you want me to or not
so I came so I could help if If you go now, you catch the bus not only ... but (also)  He is not only attractive but he's also rich
for I can't read for the light is too dim although He drove although he was drunk as ... as He is as stupid as the day is long 
and I went and saw him than He works harder than she does both ... and Both my sister and her husband came 
or Either you stay or go before He arrived before I was ready no sooner ... than I was no sooner in the bath than the phone rang 
yet He works hard yet he gets nowhere why That's why you dislike him either ... or She will either explain it or show you how to do it
nor I won't go nor will I let you when I'll come when I like rather ... than I would rather have a tooth out than watch that

The only complete list in the table above is column 1.  There are only 7 coordinating conjunctions in English by most reckonings.  The other lists can be extended very considerably and the functions of them much more closely defined and categorised.  Some of that is in the in-service guide to conjunction, linked below.


Recognising conjunctions

You can't tell what class a word is in by looking at it.  You have to look at what it is doing (i.e., its grammatical function).  For example:

  1. Has he arrived yet (adverb)
    I know he has arrived yet I can't see him (conjunction)
  2. I have only been once (adverb)
    I've been, I'll know what the problem is
  3. When did you see him? (adverb)
    I'll come when I have the time (conjunction)
  4. I did it for John (preposition)
    I couldn't do it for it was too hard (conjunction)
  5. I've been here since this morning (preposition)
    I have since regretted it (adverb)
    I'll tell you since you ask (conjunction)


Issues for learning and teaching

  1. As we saw above, conjunctions are not recognisable instantly by their form.  Learners need to know what they do.
  2. The form and use of conjunctions vary widely across languages and translation is difficult.  In some languages, a two-part conjunction is required for ideas represented by because and so and there is a temptation to produce, e.g.:
        *Because it was late so I took a taxi
  3. English is rich in conjunctions and if we aren't careful, the sheer number and variation can bewilder the learner.  We need to analyse carefully, therefore, when deciding what we present and how we present it.
  4. Communicatively, one can get away with short staccato sentences, neglecting conjunction use altogether, but any level above the most elementary will require good conjunction use.

Related guides
word class map this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site
conjunctions in English for a list of conjunctions in English
conjunction for a more technical guide with links to more detailed discussions

There is a test on some of this.