Conjunctions

Learning Objectives

  • Correctly identify and use conjunctions in a sentence

Conjunctions are the words that join together sentences, phrases, and other words. Conjunctions are divided into several categories, each of which follows different rules. We will discuss coordinating conjunctions, adverbial conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions.

Watch It

This SchoolHouse rock video on conjunctions has withstood the test of time—made in 1973, it remains relevant and entertaining today. Watch it for an overview of what conjunctions are and what they do.

You can view the transcript for “Schoolhouse Rock: Grammar- Conjunction Junction Music Video” here (opens in new window).

Coordinating Conjunctions

A compass.The most common conjunctions are andor, and but. These are all coordinating conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more equivalent items (such as words, phrases, or sentences). The mnemonic acronym FANBOYS can be used to remember the most common coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, oryet, and so. Here are some examples of them used in sentences:

  • Nuclear-powered artificial hearts proved to be complicated, bulky, and expensive.
  • Any external injury or internal injury puts patients at risk of uncontrolled bleeding.
  • The current from the storage batteries can power lights, but the current for appliances must be modified within an inverter.

Try It

Are the correct coordinating conjunctions being used in each of the following sentences? Explain your reasoning:

  1. I love boxing or sewing. They’re both a lot of fun.
  2. Martin is pretty good at writing, for Jaden is better.
  3. Juana had to choose. Would she join the red team and the blue team?

As you can see from the examples above, a comma only appears before these conjunctions sometimes. So how can you tell if you need a comma or not? There are three general rules to help you decide.

Rule 1: Joining Two Complete Ideas

Let’s look back at one of our example sentences:

The current from the storage batteries can power lights, but the current for appliances must be modified within an inverter.

There are two complete ideas in this sentence (a complete idea has both a subject and a verb). Because each of these ideas could stand alone as a sentence, the coordinating conjunction that joins them must be preceded by a comma. Otherwise you’ll have a run-on sentence.

Run-on sentences are one of the most common errors in college-level writing. Mastering the partnership between commas and coordinating conjunctions will go a long way toward resolving many run-on sentence issues in your writing. We’ll talk more about run-ons and strategies to avoid them in a later section.

Rule 2: Joining Two Similar Items

What if there is only one complete idea but two subjects or two verbs? Consider the following examples:

  1. Any external injury or internal injury puts patients at risk of uncontrolled bleeding.
  2. In the 1960s, artificial heart devices did not fit well and tended to obstruct the flow of venous blood into the right atrium.

The first sentence has two subjects: external injury and internal injury. They are joined with the conjunction or. The second sentence has two verbs: did not fit well and tended to obstruct. They are joined with the conjunction and. Neither sentence requires additional punctuation.

Rule 3: Joining Three or More Similar Items

What do you do if there are three or more items?

  • Anna loves to run, David loves to hike, and Luz loves to dance.
  • Fishing, hunting, and gathering were once the only ways for people do get food.
  • Emanuel has a very careful schedule planned for tomorrow. He needs to work, study, exercise, eat, and clean.

As you can see in the examples above, there is a comma after each item, including the item just before the conjunction (and). There is a bit of contention about that final comma, but most styles prefer to keep include it (it’s called the serial comma). We discuss the serial comma in more depth later as well.

Starting a Sentence

Many students are taught—and some style guides maintain—that English sentences should not begin with a coordinating conjunction. However, there is nothing grammatically incorrect about doing so. The practice is likely discouraged because it is thought to help students avoid creating sentence fragments, but there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.

Adverbial Conjunctions

Two thought bubbles.Adverbial conjunctions, or conjunctive adverbs, link two separate thoughts or sentences. When used to interrupt thoughts, as in the first example, below, a comma is required on either side of the conjunction. When used to separate complete ideas (independent clauses, which each contain a subject and a verb), a semicolon is required before the conjunction and a comma after. This is the case in the second example, below:

  • The first artificial hearts were made of smooth silicone rubber, which apparently caused excessive clotting and, therefore, uncontrolled bleeding.
  • The Kedeco produces 1200 watts in 17 mph winds using a 16-foot rotor; on the other hand, the Dunlite produces 2000 watts in 25 mph winds.

Adverbial conjunctions include the following words; however, it is important to note that this is by no means a complete list.A balanced scale.

therefore however in other words
thus then otherwise
nevertheless on the other hand in fact

Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions are word pairs that work together to join words and groups of words of equal weight in a sentence.

Watch It

The following video explains this type of conjunction and describes the five most common pairs.

You can view the transcript for “Correlative Conjunctions” here (opens in new window).

The table below shows some examples of correlative conjunctions used in sentences:

Correlative Conjunction Example
either . . . or You either do your work or prepare for a trip to the office. (Either do, or prepare)
neither . . . nor Neither the basketball team nor the football team is doing well.
not only . . . but (also) He is not only handsome but also brilliant. (Not only A but also B)
Not only is he handsome, but also he is brilliant. (Not only is he A, but also he is B)
both . . . and Both the cross-country team and the swimming team are doing well.
whether . . . or You must decide whether you stay or go. (It’s up to you)
Whether you stay or you go, the film will start at 8 pm. (It’s not up to you)
just as . . . so Just as lots of Americans love basketball, so many Canadians love ice hockey.
as much . . . as Football is as much an addiction as it is a sport.
no sooner . . . than No sooner did she learn to ski than the snow began to thaw.
rather . . . than I would rather swim than surf.
the . . . the The more you practice dribbling, the better you will be at it.
as . . . as Football is as fast as hockey (is (fast)).

Subordinating Conjunctions

An unbalanced scale.Subordinating conjunctions, are conjunctions that join an independent clause and a dependent clause. Here are some examples of subordinating conjunctions:

  • The heart undergoes two cardiac cycle periods: diastole, when blood enters the ventricles, and systole, when the ventricles contract and blood is pumped out of the heart.
  • Whenever an electron acquires enough energy to leave its orbit, the atom is positively charged.
  • She did the favor so that he would owe her one.

Let’s take a moment to look back at the previous examples. Can you see the pattern in comma usage? The commas aren’t dependent on the presence of subordinating conjunctions—they’re dependent on the placement of clauses they’re in. Let’s revisit a couple of examples and see if we can figure out the exact rules:

  • The heart undergoes two cardiac cycle periods: diastole, when blood enters the ventricles, and systole, when the ventricles contract and blood is pumped out of the heart.
    • These clauses are both extra information: information that is good to know, but not necessary for the meaning of the sentence. This means they need commas on either side.
  • Whenever an electron acquires enough energy to leave its orbit, the atom is positively charged.
    • In this sentence, the dependent clause comes before an independent clause. This means it should be followed by a comma.
  • She did the favor so that he would owe her one.
    • In this sentence, the independent clause comes before a dependent clause. This means no comma is required.

The most common subordinating conjunctions in the English language are shown in the table below:

after although as as far as as if as long as as soon as
as though because before even if even though every time if
in order that since so so that than though unless
until when whenever where whereas wherever  while

Watch IT

Watch this video from Khan Academy to learn more about when and how to use subordinating conjunctions.

You can view the transcript for “Subordinating Conjunctions” here (opens in new window).

Try It

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