Conjunctions: And, But, Or and More!
A conjunction is a word used to connect words, phrases, clauses and sentences. They allow us to link ideas and form long, complex sentences instead of short, staccato statements. If you watched the School House Rock episode ”Conjunction Junction what's your function?” as a child, you're well aware that “and, but and or will get you very far” as the three most commonly used coordinating conjunction examples. However, this gang of little linking words is much bigger than just the conjunction junction trio, with subordinating and correlative types too. And their abilities are impressive for words that are often made up of just two or three letters. We're going to look at the conjunction meaning in much greater detail, but this useful reference will reiterate the basics.
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The simple answer to the question “what's a conjunction” is that it's a bridging word used to join various elements of a sentence, or to link entire sentences to create a more cohesive idea. These amazingly useful words can be used to connect:
- Red and white.
- Tea or coffee.
- Cloudy but dry.
- Try the chocolate cake and the vanilla pudding.
- Sit on the big red chair or the squishy blue cushion.
- We're not going back to that restaurant because I didn't enjoy the food.
- My grades have improved since I started taking extra tutoring.
- No-one expected Jenna to finish the race. But she won the gold medal!
- Pro- and anti- government supporters gathered for the protest.
These clever connectors work well with all of the main word types (noun, adjective, verb, etc.). For example:
- Nouns -- I like both dogs and cats.
- Verbs -- I won't walk or cycle if it's raining.
- Adjective -- Ice cream is tasty but unhealthy.
- Adverbs -- I didn’t work quickly nor quietly.
- Pronouns -- The money is yours and mine.
Types of Conjunction
These linking words come in various different guises, with their own specific functions. The main types are coordinating, subordinating and correlative. Let's take a look at each in turn.
The FANBOYS of Grammar: Coordinating Conjunctions
The most common coordinators are for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so—which conveniently lend themselves to the acronym FANBOYS, to make them easier to remember. These FANBOYS deserve their own big fan base for giving us the means to form complex, interesting sentences, instead of robotic sequences of short statements.
For example, take this sentence:
I like swimming. I like diving. I don't like getting my hair wet. I don't like getting water in my ears.
It’s rather stiff, but add in a common coordinating conjunction or three:
I like swimming and diving, but I don't like getting my hair wet or water in my ears.
You'll notice that the result is far more natural and flows much better.
One more example:
Sarah works hard at school. Sarah always completes her homework on time. Sarah doesn't good grades.
Sarah works hard at school, and always completes her homework on time, yet she doesn't get good grades.
These short but sweet connectors are used to join words, phrases, clauses and even sentences that are of equal importance, i.e., the emphasis is not placed on one or the other.
- Linking words -- I like swimming and diving.
- Linking phrases -- I like swimming in the pool and in the sea.
- Linking clauses -- I like swimming, but I don't like getting my hair wet.
In these examples, each of the joined elements is of equal importance. In the case of the clauses, this makes them independent clauses. A sentence that contains two independent clauses is known as a compound sentence.
If you're feeling confused by sentence structure, the next section should help.
Independent or Dependent?
It's really difficult to understand this word type without first understanding sentence structure. Hopefully, this section will make the varying clause combinations less of a mystery. However, if you're still struggling with sentence structure or with how to define conjunction, you can find more info at this useful site.
There are three main types of sentence structure to remember:
- Simple -- contains a single clause.
- Complex -- contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.
- Compound -- contains two or more independent clauses.
Sentences can be made of independent or dependent clauses, which you need to be able to identify. Let's look at the difference and some examples.
An independent clause contains a subject and a verb, and is able to stand alone as a complete thought. It still makes sense even if you take away the rest of the sentence.
A dependent clause also contains a subject and a verb, but cannot stand alone as a complete thought. As per its name, it depends on the other part of the sentence, usually the independent clause, to make sense.
- Independent clause -- I was late to class.
- Dependent clause -- Because I was late to class… (This clause cannot stand alone as a sentence, making it dependent on another clause.)
- Independent clause plus independent clause -- I was late to class, and I had forgotten my pen. (Linked by the coordinating conjunction and.)
- Independent clause plus dependent clause -- I was given a detention because I was late to class. (Linked by the subordinating conjunction because.)
- Dependent clause plus independent clause -- Because I was late to class, I was given a detention.
It's also possible to join two dependent clauses together with a correlative conjunction. More on those later!
Dependent clauses can often cause confusion because they may not appear to be a clause at all. This is because the verb or the subject may be implied. This is known as an elliptical clause. Watch out for these when learning about subordinates, which are used to link independent and dependent clauses.
To Comma or Not to Comma?
Now that is the question that can often catch people off guard! This word type and commas have a difficult relationship. However, if you stick to the rules, you can't go far wrong. The usual rules are as follows.
Independent clause plus independent clause -- add a comma after the linking word.
Sarah always works hard at school, and completes her homework on time.
Some writers argue that, if the independent clauses are short and balanced, the linking word serves in place of the comma, making a comma surplus to requirements.
Sarah always works hard at school and completes her homework on time.
You might want to discuss this point with your lecturer. However, whichever punctuation you agree upon, remember that consistency is key.
Independent clause plus dependent clause -- no comma.
I slipped on the path because it was icy.
Dependent clause plus independent clause -- add a comma after the dependent clause.
Because it was icy, I slipped on the path.
The Relationship Makers: Subordinating Conjunctions
Subordinating conjunctions are used to join independent and dependent clauses. There are far more members in this gang than there are in the FANBOYS gang.
Common single word examples include: after, before, because, since, as, if, although, though, once, than, that, unless, until, while, when, where, whereas.
You'll also find examples of this word type that are made up of more than one word. For example: as if, as long as, even if, even though, if only, in order that, rather than, so that.
Subordinate conjunctions can be used to show a variety of different relationships between the two (or more) clauses in a sentence. Let's look at some examples. Note: In the case of elliptical clauses, the implied words are (enclosed).
Comparison or Degree -- than, as, else, otherwise, rather, as much as, as far as, as well as.
- Sarah is happier than her sister (is happy).
- I like to read as much as I can (read).
- Matt doesn't play football as well as his brother (plays football).
Time -- since, until, as long as, as soon as, before, after, when, as, while.
- We had coffee while we were waiting.
- I have to leave as soon as it gets dark.
- Since I started my new job, I haven't had a single night off.
Place -- where.
- I went to the cafe where we usually meet.
Manner -- as if, as though.
- He led the presentation confidently as though he'd done it many times before.
Condition -- if, though, unless, except, without, once.
- Once you've paid the balance, the car is yours.
- I'm not talking to him unless he calms down.
- I can't make a cake without breaking some eggs.
Reason or Concession -- as, inasmuch as, why, because, for, since, though, although, albeit.
- Since you won't apologize, I'm not speaking to you.
- Arya went to the shop because she needed milk.
Purpose or Result -- that, so that, in order that, such that.
- We turned out all the lights so that they thought we weren't home.
Indirect Questions -- whether, why, when.
- He wouldn't tell me why it was there.
The Two-Word Teams: Correlative Conjunctions
These two-word tag teams can work together to join words, phrases and clauses that have equal weighting within a sentence. They can also be used to join two dependent clauses. Examples include: as/as, if/then, either/or, neither/nor, both/and, where/there, so/as, not only/but also.
The rule with these perfect pairs is that they must be positioned by the parallel elements.
Sara is buying not only a car but also a motorbike.
This sentence balances because the correlatives are placed before each noun phrase (“a car” and “a motorbike").
Matt neither studied for his English test nor finished his paper.
This sentence balances because the correlatives are placed before each verb (“studied” and “finished”).
Amber wanted to win both the gold medal in the 200m race and the gold medal in the 500m race.
This sentence balances because the correlatives are placed before each noun phrase (“the gold medal”).
Amber wanted to either win the 200m race or set a new record.
This sentence balances because the correlatives are placed before each verb (“win” and “set”).
The Wild Cards: Conjunctive Adverbs
When an adverb is used to connect two parts of a sentence it's known as a conjunctive adverb. The list of these often not-quite-so-little linking words includes: accordingly, also, besides, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, otherwise, similarly, still, subsequently, then, therefore, thus.
The grammar rules for this sub-category differ slightly, with the appearance of the lesser-spotted semicolon.
When used to join two clauses -- Clause; conjunctive adverb, clause.
- Kim decided to stay home because it was raining; therefore, she could spend more time studying for her test.
- Jack was studying in the library; meanwhile, Sarah was planning his birthday surprise.
These can also be used to join two follow-on sentences -- Clause. Conjunctive adverb, clause.
- Kim decided to stay home because it was raining. Therefore, she could spend more time studying for her test.
- Jack was studying in the library. Meanwhile, Sarah was planning his birthday surprise.
Sometimes you might place a conjunctive adverb in the middle of a clause. In this case it should usually be enclosed by commas.
- Kim decided, therefore, to stay at home.
- Jack was, similarly, trapped indoors.
Simple vs Compound
This handy connective word type comes in varying shapes and sizes. Among the simplest are the coordinators: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so (remember FANBOYS?).
Other simple single word connectors include: after, as, if, lest, once, since, than, that, though, till, when, where, while.
Compounds are made when two single words come together to form a new word. These include: although, because, nevertheless, notwithstanding, whenever, wherever, therefore, moreover.
Phrasal conjunctives are made of two or more separate words, functioning as one. Examples include: as if, as long as, as much as, as soon as, as though, by the time, even if, even though, in order that, in case, only if, provided that, so that, supposing that.
An Adverbial Friend
Adverbs can be used in conjunction with this word type, allowing you to add extra emphasis to the linking word. Many of the above phrasal examples fall into the category of subordinating linking words modified by adverbs.
For example, even, when standing alone, is an adverb (in this context). Here it's being used to modify though, to add emphasis to the link between the two clauses.
My mom phoned even though I asked her not to.
Right, when standing alone, is an adverb (in this context). Here it's being used to modify the linking word before, indicating that she arrived very close to closing time.
I made it to the shops right before they closed.
Follow the Rules
As with all elements of grammar, there are some rules to remember when using these words to link words, phrases, clauses or sentences. These include the following:
Rule 1: The parts that you are linking should be in grammatical agreement.
I like running and to swim -- incorrect.
I like running and swimming -- correct.
I like to run and swim -- correct.
I work quickly yet am accurate -- incorrect.
I work quickly yet accurately -- correct.
I am a quick yet accurate worker -- correct.
Rule 2: Only use one of this word type to connect two elements of a sentence (unless using a phrasal or correlative). These words usually like to work alone.
- Because the bus was late, so I was late for class -- incorrect.
- Because the bus was late, I was late for class -- correct.
Break the Rules
The most natural place for a linking word is in-between the elements of a sentence that it is linking. Some rules, however, are meant to be broken and the main act of rebellion for this word type is that it can sometimes be positioned at the beginning of a sentence.
Subordinating Conjunctions Examples
As you'll have noticed, the dependent and independent clauses of a sentence can often switch positions and still make sense; therefore, placing the subordinate linking word at the beginning of the sentence.
- Daniel drinks a protein shake before he goes to the gym.
- Before he goes to the gym, Daniel drinks a protein shake.
This can be useful for two reasons:
While the independent clause usually dominates the dependent clause, swapping their natural positions can subtly switch the emphasis for the reader.
In the above, example one focuses the reader's attention on the fact that Daniel drinks a protein shake. While example two focuses the reader's attention on the fact that Daniel goes to the gym.
Using a mixture of different sentence structures can help to make your writing more interesting and engaging.
In the case of the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), positioning them at the beginning of a sentence is the subject of some debate. After all, isn't the idea of these words that they link two elements together? However, you can use them to link two sentences, positioning the linking word at the start of the second sentence.
It took me seven hours to draft my research paper. But my journey didn't end there.
The above is a good example of starting a sentence with a coordinate for dramatic effect. You might also use this device to convey surprise.
So Sara ate all the chocolate cake? And she didn't save you any?
Or to place extra emphasis on the second part.
I lost the first race. But I won the second!
Breaking the rules and positioning your linking word at the start of a sentence can be a very useful device to subtly convey meaning to your reader and add extra interest to your work. However, use it too much and it will quickly lose its power!
Matching the Verb
Some words on the conjunctions list have the additional superpower of denoting whether the sentence verb should be singular or plural.
- My mom and dad were in Florida.
- Apartments one through ten were empty.
- In these examples and and through indicate the need for a plural verb.
- My mom or dad wakes me every morning.
- Either apartment one or apartment ten was empty.
In these examples or and either/or indicate the need for a singular verb. Note that if you're using a correlative, like above, to connect two subjects, it's the second subject that must agree with the verb.
- Either apartment one or apartments six and seven were empty.
- Either apartments six and seven or apartment one was empty.
The same rule also applies to matching the pronoun to two antecedents connected with a correlative.
- Neither Sarah nor her sisters ate their dinner last night.
- Neither her sisters nor Sarah ate her dinner last night.
List of Conjunctions
As well as the categories that we've looked at above—coordinating, subordinating and correlative—this word type can also be split into categories of function. These include cumulative/copulative, adversative, disjunctive/alternative and illative.
Let's look at these in more detail, with examples:
Cumulative/Copulative includes and, both/and, as well as, not only/but also.
These add one statement to another.
- I made the presentation, and Alice gave the speech.
- I not only baked the cake but also made the entrees too.
Adversative includes but, still, yet, whereas, while, nevertheless.
These express a contrast between two statements.
- Sara is small, but she is strong.
- I didn't want to go to work, yet I still went.
Disjunctive/Alternative includes or, either/or, neither/nor, neither, nor, otherwise, else.
These present two alternatives.
- I'd like to holiday in Hawaii or Cancun this year.
- Either do the work or you'll fail the class.
Illative includes for and so.
These express something inferred from another statement.
- He's done all the work so he should pass the class.
- The bus must be late for Sarah has still not arrived.
If you're still struggling to answer the question “what is a conjunction,” don't worry! It can take some time to fully understand the different types and rules of use. Understanding sentence structure and clauses is essential for understanding how to properly use and place conjunction words, which makes this element of grammar even trickier. You can learn more here or search online for conjunctions worksheets to practice what you've learned.
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