What Are Conjunctions?

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words used to connect words, phrases or clauses. There are three types of conjunctions:
  • Coordinating Conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions join like with like (i.e., they join a noun with another noun, an adjective with another adjective, etc.). The most common ones are and, but and or.
  • Subordinating Conjunctions. Subordinating conjunctions join subordinate clauses to main clauses. Common examples are although, because, if, since, unless, until and while.
  • Correlative Conjunctions. Correlative conjunctions are used in pairs to join alternatives or equal elements. The most common pairs are either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also.

Click on Two Conjunctions

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Easy Examples of Conjunctions

Here are some examples of coordinating conjunctions (shaded):
  • The comment was blunt but effective.
  • (The conjunction joins two adjectives.)
  • Familiarity breeds contempt and children.
  • (The conjunction joins two nouns.)
Here are some examples of subordinating conjunctions:
  • We'll stay in the car until the hail stops.
  • I'm leaving if Lee starts telling us about that bass again.
Here are some examples of correlative conjunctions:
  • I could neither laugh nor cry.
  • She was not only smart but also beautiful.

Real-Life Examples of Coordinating Conjunctions

Here are some real-life examples of coordinating conjunctions (shaded):
  • If a man should challenge me to a duel, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place to kill him. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • (Here, the first conjunction joins two adverbs (kindly and forgivingly). The second joins two verbs (take and lead).)
  • 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)
Read more about coordinating conjunctions.

Real-Life Examples of Subordinating Conjunctions

The role of the subordinating conjunction and subordinate clause is to establish a time, a place, a reason, a condition or a concession for the main clause. Below are some real-life examples of subordinating conjunctions. (In these examples, the subordinating conjunctions are highlighted and the subordinate clause is bolded.)
  • I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • (The subordinate clause establishes a time for the main clause.)
  • Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity. (Greek physician Hippocrates)
  • (The subordinate clause establishes a place for the main clause.)
  • People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it's safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs.
  • (The subordinate clause establishes a reason for the main clause.)
  • Man is ready to die for an idea, provided that idea is not quite clear to him. (Author Paul Eldridge)
  • (The subordinate clause establishes a condition for the main clause.)
  • I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. (Sir Winston Churchill)
  • (The subordinate clause establishes a concession for the main clause.)
When a sentence has a main clause (also called an independent clause) and at least one subordinate clause (also called a dependent clause), it is known as a complex sentence.

Read more about subordinating conjunctions.

Real-Life Examples of Correlative Conjunctions

  • Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts. (Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud)
  • Education is not only the filling of a pail but also the lighting of a fire. (Irish poet William Butler Yeats)
  • It is not death but dying which is terrible. (Author Henry Fielding)
Read more about correlative conjunctions.
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Why Should I Care about Coordinating Conjunctions?

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.) So far so good. However, if you think it helps your reader, you can use a comma.
    • 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 exception because it's common.

    The Exception to the Rule for Two Items

    When your coordinate 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.)
    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 readjust.)
    • The man caught the boy, and the girl caught the dog.
    • (Your readers will not need to readjust 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 to the Oxford Comma claim it introduces ambiguity because commas can be used like brackets. Look at these two sentences:
    • Jack left the pub with John (a policeman) and Simon.
    • Jack left the pub with John, a policeman, and Simon.
    • (With an Oxford Comma, this could feasibly refer to two people (like in the top example) or three people.)
    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 "…my 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, clarity comes first. Loyalty to, or hatred of, the Oxford Comma comes second.

    (Question 2) Can you start a sentence with And 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 coordinate 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. (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.)
    Read more about commas in lists.

    Why Should I Care about Subordinating Conjunctions?

    As a native English speaker, you don't need to worry about whether your subordinating conjunction is heading up a clause that establishes a time, a place, a reason, a condition or a concession. You'll do that bit naturally.

    The most common question related to subordinating conjunctions is whether to offset the subordinate clause with a comma or not. Here's the guidance:

    When a subordinate clause starts a sentence, separate it from the main clause with a comma.
    • If you shoot at mimes, should you use a silencer? (Comedian Steven Wright)
    • Now that I'm over sixty, I'm veering toward respectability. (Actress Shelley Winters)
    These are often called fronted subordinate clauses. A comma is used with a fronted subordinate clause because the comma makes it clear where the main clause starts.

    When a subordinate clause ends a sentence, you can drop the comma.
    • Should you use a silencer if you shoot at mimes?
    • I'm veering toward respectability now that I'm over sixty.
    There's a quirk though: You can use a comma for a deliberate pause.

    As a rule, try to resist using a comma before a subordinating conjunction. However, if you want to create a pause for effect, then a comma can be used.
    • Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons. (Film director Woody Allen)
    • Man is ready to die for an idea, provided that idea is not quite clear to him.
    If you were told at school that a comma represents a pause, then your teacher was giving you reading advice not writing advice. There are specific rules on using commas and "to create a pause" isn't one of them, even though you'd likely whack in a few accurate commas if you adopted that rule. That said, this is a time when a comma can be used to create a pause. That's why it's a quirk. It's also pretty common.

    Why Should I Care about Correlative Conjunctions?

    Correlative conjunctions are useful for keeping your writing succinct. They not only provide a succinct structure to say two things but also express how those two things relate to each other.

    Generally, correlative conjunctions don't cause native English speakers too much grief, but there are four noteworthy issues associated with correlative conjunctions.

    (1) Keep a parallel structure

    Correlative conjunctions come in pairs. You must use the same type of word after each one in the pair.
    • Lee not only likes pies but also cakes. [wrong]
    • (Here, the first conjunction in the pair sits before a verb (likes), but the second sits before a noun (cakes). It's not parallel. It's untidy.)
    • He should either sell his watch or his car. [wrong]
    • (Here, the first conjunction sits before a verb (sell), but the second sits before a noun (his car). It's not parallel. Untidy.)
    • Lee likes not only pies but also cakes.
    • He should sell either his watch or his car.
    • (In these examples, the first and second conjunctions sit before nouns. Both examples now have parallel structures. Tidy.)
    • Lee not only likes pies but also likes cakes.
    • He should either pawn his watch or sell his car.
    • (In these examples, the first and second conjunctions sit before verbs. Parallel. Tidy.)
    In truth, few people would describe a non-parallel structure with correlative conjunctions as a serious error, and you'd be very unlikely to create ambiguity if you committed that "crime". Nevertheless, try to use parallel terms because, firstly, parallel structures are easier to read and, secondly, you will feel some comfort knowing your sentence structure is sound.

    (2) Don't use commas with correlative conjunctions. (Beware the exceptions!)

    Sometimes, writers are unsure whether to use a comma with correlative conjunctions. This question arises most often with the pairing not only/but also. Here's the rule: Don't use commas with correlative conjunctions.
    • Lee likes not only pies, but also cakes. [wrong]
    Unfortunately, it's a little bit more complicated than that. Here's the exception: If the second conjunction sits before an independent clause (i.e., words that could be a standalone sentence), then use a comma.
    • As a father has compassion on his children, so God has compassion on those who fear him. (Bible, Psalm 103:13)
    It is rare for an independent clause to follow a correlative conjunction, but it does happen, especially with the pairing not only/but also.
    • Not only does Lee like pies, but he also likes cakes.
    • (Note that the subject of the independent clause (he) splits but also. This is necessary because the word but is playing two roles. We know it is part of the correlative conjunction not only/but also, but, in this sentence, it's also a coordinating conjunction. Remember, coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but) are used to join like elements. Here, it's joining two independent clauses.)
    Also, be mindful that you might find yourself using a comma before a correlative conjunction because the comma is needed for another reason.
    • Lee likes not only pies, especially cheese and onion, but also cakes.
    • (Here, the commas are offsetting especially cheese and onion, which is just some additional information (called a parenthesis). So, the comma before but also has got nothing to do with correlative conjunctions.)

    (3) Be careful with subject-verb agreement

    When the pairing either/or or neither/nor features in the subject of a verb, the verb is singular if both elements are singular.
    • Neither the inspector nor the constable was available for comment.
    • (Both elements (the lorry and the van) are singular, so the verb (was) is singular; i.e., using were would be wrong.)
    However, things get complicated if one of the elements is plural because there are two conventions:

    Convention 1: The Proximity Rule. Under this convention, the element nearest the verb determines whether it's singular or plural.
    • Neither the inspector nor the constables were available for comment.
    • (The element nearest the verb (constables) is plural, so the verb (were) is plural.)
    Convention 2: The Logic Rule. Under this convention, if any of the elements are plural, the verb is plural.
    • Neither the inspectors nor the constable were available for comment.
    • (Here, the first element (inspectors) is plural, so the verb is plural. This would be wrong using The Proximity Rule.)
    So, should you use the Proximity Rule or the Logic Rule if one of your elements is plural? Well, both are common, so the quick answer is pick one and be consistent. But, there's a far better answer: satisfy both rules at once. If one of your elements is plural, deliberately put it nearest to the verb.
    • Either the budgies or the cat have to go.
    • (This is correct under the Logic Rule but wrong under the Proximity Rule.)
    • Either the car or the budgies have to go.
    • (Here, the plural element is nearest to the verb. This is now correct under both rules. Winner.)
    This all applies to or by itself (i.e., without either).

    (4) Don't forget that neither/nor plays a negative role.

    Be aware that neither/nor plays a negative role in your sentence. Be careful not to use a double negative.
    • We did not discuss neither the flooding nor the landslide. [wrong]
    • (This is a double negative.)
    Remember, two negatives make a positive. So, the example above means that the flooding and the landslide were discussed, which would not have been the intended meaning. Here are two better options:
    • We discussed neither the flooding nor the landslide.
    • We did not discuss either the flooding or the landslide.
    Of course, two positives don't make a negative, but it can happen. Yeah, right.

    See Also

    What are adjectives? What are adverbs? What are interjections? What are nouns? What are prepositions? What are pronouns? What are verbs? Conjunctions and commas Conjunctions and semicolons Commas before conjunctions (and, or, but) More than I or more than me? List of easily confused words