Coordinating Conjunctions

What Are Coordinating Conjunctions?

Coordinating conjunctions are joiners. They join like with like. For example, a coordinating conjunction can be used to join an adjective with another adjective, a noun with another noun, or a clause with another clause.

The three most common coordinating conjunctions are and, or, and but.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Coordinating Conjunctions
  • "Find the Coordinating Conjunctions" Test
  • Why Coordinating Conjunctions Are Important
  • Test Time!
coordinating conjunctions
Coordinating conjunctions are also known as "coordinate conjunctions." There are seven coordinating conjunctions:
  • For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So
  • (You can remember them using the mnemonic F.A.N.B.O.Y.S.)

Examples of Coordinating Conjunctions

  • Lee likes sandwiches and cakes.
  • (Here, the coordinating conjunction "and" joins two nouns.)
  • She will sing and dance.
  • ("And" joins two verbs.)
  • She must be able to sing like a rock star or dance like a ballerina.
  • ("Or" joins two phrases)
  • He's a small but aggressive dog.
  • ("But" joins two adjectives.)
  • He typed the letter quickly but accurately.
  • ("But" joins two adverbs.)
  • She must be able to sing, and she must be able to dance.
  • (Here, "and" joins two independent clauses, i.e., clauses that could stand alone as sentences. This time, the coordinating conjunction "and" has a comma before it. It's because it's joining two independent clauses. There's more on this to come.)
  • The manager, his deputy, or his secretary will see you shortly.
  • (Here, the coordinating conjunction "or" joins three nouns. Notice the comma before "or." It's because there are three items in the list. There's more on this to come too.)
"Yet" and "for" are quite rare nowadays. Here is an example with "yet" and one with "for":
  • The best solutions are often simple yet unexpected. (Rock musician Julian Casablancas)
  • He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature. (Greek philosopher Socrates)

"Find the Coordinating Conjunctions" Test

Can You Identify Coordinating Conjunctions?

Why Coordinating Conjunctions Are Important

There are two common questions related to coordinating conjunctions:

(Question 1) Do you put a comma before "and"?

Mostly no but sometimes yes. Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn't short. Here's a summary of the rules:

The Rule for Two Items

When "and" (or any coordinating conjunction) joins two items, don't use a comma.
  • Lee has eaten all the cheese and biscuits.
  • The whole world agrees on this point. (Look at the first five examples in the "Easy Example" section above.) So far so good. However, if you think a comma would help your reader, you can use a comma. For example:
    • The Bakerloo line runs between Elephant and Castle, and Harrow and Wealdstone.
    • (Using a comma with two list items is not that uncommon. It happens when the list items themselves contain commas. Here, the comma before "and" helps readers to spot the list items faster. They could work it out, but the comma helps.)
    • I used to watch Colombo, and Cagney and Lacey.
    • (This example also has two list items: "Colombo" and "Cagney and Lacey". This time, the comma is more important because the list items could feasibly be "Colombo and Cagney" and "Lacey".)
    So, in summary, don't use a comma when "and" (or any other coordinating conjunction) joins two items unless it helps your readers.

    There's a very important exception to this rule though. It's important because it's common.

    The Exception to the Rule for Two Items

    When your coordinating conjunction joins two (or more) independent clauses (i.e., ones that could stand alone as individual sentences), then use a comma.
    • I like sweet things, but I prefer savoury dishes.
    • (Here, the clauses being joined (shown in bold) could stand alone. They are independent clauses. That's why there is a comma before "but.")
    Compare that with this:
    • I like sweet things but prefer savoury dishes.
    • (This is very similar, but "prefer savoury dishes" is not an independent clause. It's not a sentence. That's why there's no comma before "but" in this example.)
    Here are some real-life examples:
    • The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won't get much sleep. (Film director Woody Allen)
    • (The first coordinating conjunction ("and") joins two nouns, so no comma is required. The second ("but") joins two independent clauses, so a comma is required.)
    • Basically, my wife was immature. I'd be at home in my bath, and she'd come in and sink my boats. (Woody Allen)
    • (The first coordinating conjunction ("and") joins two independent clauses, so a comma is required. The second ("and") joins two verbs, so no comma is required.)
    Hopefully, that's all clear. But, there's a quirk: If the two "sentences" (i.e., the independent clauses) are very short, it is acceptable – for style purposes – to omit the comma.
    • Craig caught a bass and Lee caught a goby.
    • Craig caught a bass, and Lee caught a goby.
    • (Both versions are acceptable.)
    Look at this though:
    • The man caught the boy and the girl caught the dog.
    • (For a fleeting moment, your readers will think that the man caught "the boy and the girl." You should try to write in a way that doesn't cause your reader to re-adjust.)
    • The man caught the boy, and the girl caught the dog.
    • (Your readers will not need to re-adjust now. This example captures why we need a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses.)

    The Rule for Three or More Items

    When there are three or more list items, life starts getting a little more complicated because there is no unified position on whether to use a comma with the coordinating conjunction.

    Some people will write this:
    • Bacon, eggs, and tomatoes
    • (The comma before the "and" is called an Oxford Comma. This is the convention followed by most (but not all) Americans.)
    Some people will write this:
    • Bacon, eggs and tomatoes
    • (This is the convention followed by most (but not all) Brits. The most notable exception is the Oxford University Press, after which the Oxford Comma is named.)
    There are plenty of people out there who would happily start a fight with you for not using an Oxford Comma, but there are also plenty of others who consider the Oxford Comma a waste of printer ink. In essence, it's a battle of clarity versus economy.

    Advocates of the Oxford Comma claim it eliminates ambiguity. They have a point. The Oxford Comma is certainly useful for showing the separations between the list items.
    • £3 for a mug of tea, bacon and eggs and toast
    • (Without an Oxford Comma, this could mean (1) a mug of tea, (2) bacon, and (3) eggs and toast.)
    • £3 for a mug of tea, bacon and eggs, and toast
    • (With an Oxford Comma, the list items are clear.)
    Protestors against the Oxford Comma claim it introduces ambiguity because commas can be used like brackets. For example:
    • Jack left the pub with John, a policeman, and Simon.
    • (With an Oxford Comma, this could feasibly refer to two people (like in the example below) or three people.)
    • Jack left the pub with John (a policeman) and Simon.
    Advocates claim that the Oxford Comma actually eliminates, not creates, such ambiguity, and they routinely cite this probably apocryphal book dedication:
    • This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
    • (This could feasibly be read as " parents (Ayn Rand and God)". The same "ambiguity" wouldn't exist with an Oxford Comma before "and.")
    So, there are arguments for and against the Oxford Comma. As it happens, you probably don't have a choice whether to adopt the Oxford Comma or not. If you live in the UK, you probably shouldn't adopt it (unless you're at Oxford). If you live in the US, you probably should. Whatever convention you go for, be consistent.

    Well, actually, be flexibly consistent. If your chosen convention creates ambiguity, break the convention. There's only one 100% rule when it comes to the Oxford Comma: clarity trumps convention.

    In other words, everyone (regardless of what convention they follow) should write this when they mean four people:
    • I have the twins, Joe, and Callum.
    Remember that clarity comes first. Loyalty to, or hatred of, the Oxford Comma comes second.

    (Question 2) Can you start a sentence with "And," "Or," or "But"?

    Despite what you may have been told at school, you can start a sentence with a conjunction like "And," "Or," and "But."

    Bear in mind though that a conjunction at the start of a sentence looks quite striking, so don't do it too often (it gets annoying quickly). However, you should definitely keep this practice in your back pocket to create an impactful start to your sentence. Think of it like this:

    "And" is an impactful way of saying In addition
    "But" is an impactful way of saying However
    "Or" is an impactful way of saying Put another way

    Here are some real-life examples:
    • And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. (US President John F Kennedy)
    • I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But, this wasn't it. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
    When a conjunction starts a sentence, you could argue it's not being used to join like terms but as a link between two sentences (i.e., like a conjunctive adverb such as "however," "consequently," and "therefore").

    So, the real question is not whether you can use a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence but whether "and," "but," and "or" are conjunctive adverbs as well as coordinating conjunctions. And, it seems they are.

    Therefore, should you put a comma after your conjunction like you do with a conjunctive adverb? Well, that's up to you. If you want a pause, go for it. If you don't, don't.
    • It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But, it is better to be good than to be ugly. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
    • (The comma after "But" provides a pause. It's not a grammar thing. It's a controlling-the-flow-of-text thing.)
    • And I will always love you. (Singer Whitney Houston)
    • (There's no pause for Whitney.)

    Key Points

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    This page was written by Craig Shrives.