What Is a Conjunction? Types of Conjunctions

Summary

Use conjunctions to link words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. Coordinating conjunctions link two elements of equal grammatical status.

Examples
  • apples and oranges
  • green apples or blue oranges
  • Lulu likes green apples, but she loves blue oranges.
  • Lulu likes all kinds of fruit, including green apples. But what she loves are blue oranges.

Subordinating conjunctions link two clauses, making the meaning of one clause dependent on that of the other.

Examples
  • Maya likes to travel because it is more fun than sitting at home.
  • When Farley sings, crows start to caw.
  • Many cats like milk, although most of them are lactose intolerant.

What is a conjunction?

A conjunction links words, phrases, and clauses, expressing a logical relation between them. It can also link two sentences.

Examples
  • Lulu likes flowers, pumpkins, and butterflies.
    linking a group of words
  • Farley has three dogs and two cats.
    linking two phrases
  • Tumkin took along an umbrella because it was raining.
    linking two clauses
  • Maya wanted to leave, but something held her back.
    linking two clauses again
  • Poco wore a jacket, a raincoat, and a pair of galoshes; he even carried his umbrella. But it didn’t rain.
    linking two sentences
  • In her paper, Anita compares pre- and post-War student movements.
    linking two prefixes

There are two types of conjunctions: coordinating and subordinating.

Coordinating conjunctions

We use coordinating conjunctions to link two grammatical elements of equal importance, which could be words, phrases, independent clauses, sentences, or even prefixes, as long as they are balanced and of equal status. (An independent clause can stand by itself as a sentence.)

The seven coordinating conjunctions in English are and, or, but, yet, so, nor, for. Of these, the most commonly used are and, but, and or. Here are some examples that show how these conjunctions can be used to link different grammatical elements.

To link words
  • Maya likes books, music, and oranges.
  • Tumkin is intelligent but absent-minded.
  • Did you go to Thailand or Indonesia?
To link phrases
  • Rita ate three caterpillars and two snails for breakfast.
  • Nesbit brushes his teeth in the morning but not at night.
  • Poco has many cars but no happiness.
  • Which ability would you prefer: to fly without wings or to grant people their wishes?
  • The rain came down in torrents and washed away the mountain road.
To link independent clauses
  • Our car broke down, and we were stuck in the middle of the forest.
  • Were you in Thailand, or did you go to Indonesia?
  • Lulu had no apples, but she had some oranges.
To link sentences
  • Alarms rang and people shouted. But the ghost had already vanished.
  • Farley breathed out in relief: he was finally safe. And then the ground underneath exploded.
To link prefixes
  • The pro- and anti-reform parties have reached an agreement.
  • Are these your short- or long-term plans?

The coordinating conjunctions yet and so are also used to connect two balanced elements.

Examples
  • They were broke yet happy.
  • It was pouring rain and pitch dark, yet we found our way out of the forest.
  • I couldn’t wait any longer, so I sent him an email.

We often use the coordinating conjunction nor to introduce the second of two negative alternatives (neither . . . nor . . .).

Examples
  • Maya eats neither caterpillars nor snails.
  • Neither does Rita sew, nor does she knit.

But nor needn’t always follow neither. It can be used to simply introduce a further negative statement.

Examples
  • It didn’t stop raining, nor did the waters recede.
  • “I can’t stand the smell of roses.” “Nor can I!”

For is used as a conjunction mainly in literary texts or when you want to lend a solemn tone to a sentence. Otherwise, in modern usage, it is more often used as a preposition than a conjunction.

Examples
  • Conjunction: He was alone in his mind, for finally, there was no one else there.
  • Preposition: The shuttle for Mars leaves at 0900 hours.

Commas with coordinating conjunctions

When a coordinating conjunction like and or but links two independent clauses, it is usually preceded by a comma. This makes it easier for the reader to note the change in clause and follow along with the text. (Remember that an independent clause is one that can stand by itself as a sentence.)

Examples
  • Maya has booked a flight to Mauritius, but she hasn’t bought a return ticket.
  • Poco wants to watch a play, and he also wants to go out for dinner.

The comma between independent clauses is not grammatically necessary, but it effectively demarcates the two clauses, indicating to the reader where one clause ends and the other begins. Most style manuals, including The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and the APA Publication Manual, recommend using the comma to clarify meaning and improve readability, which is important in business and academic writing. In creative writing, the comma between the clauses is often omitted: the writer may not want the reader to pause between the two thoughts.

Caution

Insert a comma before not after a conjunction.

Examples
  • Incorrect We tried calling you but, you were not reachable.
  • Correct We tried calling you, but you were not reachable.

In general, you don’t need to use a comma when a conjunction connects words and phrases, except in a list.

Examples
  • Maya has booked flights to Mauritius and Madagascar.
  • but
  • Maya has booked flights to Mauritius, Madagascar, and the Maldives.
  • For his birthday, Poco will buy a helicopter or a yacht.
  • but
  • For his birthday, Poco will buy a helicopter, a yacht, or a sports car.

The serial comma

The serial comma is used before the conjunction in a list of three or more items. It is the comma after the second-last element in a list, usually before and or or.

Examples
  • For the expedition, you will need shoes, socks, and a compass.
  • Poco bought a huge mansion, a new helicopter, four gold watches, and an entire island, but he still feels something is missing.

The serial comma is sometimes necessary to clarify meaning for your reader.

Examples
  • I live with my roommates, a cat and a dog.
  • This implies that your roommates are a cat and a dog. You might humorously or affectionately refer to your cat and your dog as “roommates,” but if that is not what you mean, use the serial comma.
  • I live with my roommates, a cat, and a dog.
Note

Except when necessary to clarify meaning, the serial comma is a style choice. It is more common in American than in British style, and in formal than in creative writing.

And, but, or or at the start of a sentence

It is fine to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction like and or but. Use the conjunction in this position when you want to emphasize it. Note, however, that such usage lends a dramatic (and informal) tone to writing. As such, the sentence-initial conjunction is found more often in creative than in formal writing.

Examples
  • After everything that had happened, we had no reason to believe him. But we still did, for what else was there to do?
  • She wept and fasted. She wept and prayed. She ranted and raved. She begged and cried. And still Aunt Martha would not relent.
  • You can have the lies they peddle to you, sugarcoated lies that help you sleep better at night. Or you can have the truth.
Tip

It’s perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with and or but. Since doing so lends a dramatic tone to the sentence, such usage is more common in creative than in academic or business writing.

In formal writing, such as a thesis or a cover letter, an editor will usually replace and, but, or, yet, and so occurring at the start of sentences with sentence adverbs like furthermore, however, alternatively, nevertheless, and therefore.

Examples
  • Many studies have addressed religion in the nomadic context. However, none have been conducted on this specific nomadic tribe.
  • The results validate our hypothesis of the potato being the first sentient root vegetable to evolve on Mars. Furthermore, our study demonstrates the requirement for analysis of other plant forms on the planet.
  • Our results were not conclusive. Nevertheless, we recommend that other research scholars spend the best years of their lives investigating this topic.

Conjunctive adverbs

When an adverb is used to join two independent clauses, it functions much like a conjunction and is called a conjunctive adverb. Such usage can sound formal and is seen mainly in academic writing (like theses or research papers).

Examples
  • The results of our study are inconclusive; however, we believe our research is still valuable and should be published.
  • The tribes of Neptune communicate using a complex form of telepathy; therefore, we were unable to make them fill out our questionnaires.
Caution

When you use a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, thus, nonetheless), use a semicolon, not a comma, to join the two clauses. A comma after the adverb is optional.

Examples
  • Conjunction: I’m afraid I don’t have a car, but I can still help you.
    Use a comma between the two clauses when you join them using a coordinating conjunction like but.
  • Conjunctive adverb: I’m afraid I don’t have a car; however, I can still help you.
    Use a semicolon when you use a conjunctive adverb like however to link two clauses.
  • Conjunction: We had neither flour nor butter to bake a cake, so we used the eggs to make a nice little omelet.
  • Conjunctive adverb: We had neither flour nor butter to bake a cake; therefore, we used the eggs to make a nice little omelet.

Subordinating conjunctions

A subordinating conjunction logically connects two clauses, of which one is subordinate in importance to the other. By using a subordinating instead of coordinating conjunction, we indicate that one clause is dependent on the other.

Examples
  • Maya is happy because it is raining.
    main clause = Maya is happy; subordinate clause = because it is raining
  • As Anita is now the manager, she gets to decide instead of Poco.
  • What you want is an apple, whereas all we have are peaches.

Here are some examples of subordinating conjunctions.

Commonly used subordinating conjunctions
  • because
  • since
  • as
  • though
  • although
  • even though
  • once
  • when
  • whenever
  • while
  • whereas
  • if
  • as if
  • where
  • so (that)
  • that
  • until
  • till
  • unless
  • before
  • after
  • as long as
  • as much as
  • as soon as

Commas with subordinating conjunctions

A comma is not generally used when the subordinate clause follows the main clause.

Examples
  • Poco might get upset if you don’t finish your work.
    main clause = Poco might get upset; subordinate clause = if you don’t finish your work
  • Farley loses all his money whenever he gambles.
  • You don’t know if you’ll succeed until you give it a try.

However, when a subordinate clause precedes the main clause, a comma can improve readability and indicate a slight pause.

Examples
  • Whenever Poco sneezes, his eyes fall out.
    Subordinate clause = Whenever Poco sneezes; main clause = his eyes fall out
  • After you finish digging a tunnel, you can escape this dungeon.
  • Since all the flights have been canceled, we’re stuck here at the airport.

Conjunctions of contrast

When conjunctions of contrast (like while, whereas, though) link two clauses, a comma can indicate a slight pause after the main clause, emphasizing the relation of contrast.

Examples
  • Rita rode down the steep mountainside, even though she had promised she wouldn’t.
  • Farley wanted a motorcycle, whereas all he had was an old scooter.
  • The truth will prevail, though we may try to quash it.

When while implies contrast, use a comma before it.

Example
  • The word to speaks of destination, while toward refers to direction.

But when while means “at the same time as” rather than “whereas,” no contrast is implied, and the comma can be omitted.

Example
  • Nothing changed while the princess slept, three peas under her bed and a curse on her head.

Similarly, use a comma before when when the word implies contrast.

Example
  • Many think that dinosaurs were reptiles, when they were in fact birds.

Again, a comma isn’t used when when doesn’t imply contrast.

Example

Because at the start of a sentence

It’s perfectly fine to start a sentence with because, both in casual and formal writing.

Examples
  • Because I like cocoa, I love chocolate.
  • Because it was raining, Farley’s pants were wet.
  • Because Lulu likes oranges, she refuses to eat apples.
Caution

Don’t forget that a complete sentence needs a main clause. This is especially important in formal writing (such as a report or a thesis).

Example
  • Incorrect Because we investigated the anomaly and determined that its cause was statistical instead of physical.
    This is a sentence fragment (an incomplete sentence): it has no main clause.
    Correct Because we investigated the anomaly, we determined that its cause was statistical instead of physical.
    subordinate clause = because we investigated the anomaly; main clause = we determined that its cause was statistical instead of physical

Conjunction or preposition?

A word may be a conjunction or a preposition, depending upon how it is used in a sentence. If a word like until or since links a subordinate to a main clause, it is a conjunction; if it takes an object, it is a preposition.

Examples
  • Conjunction: Don’t jump off the plane until I give you the signal.
    links two clauses
    Preposition: Maya hadn’t even considered space travel until last Saturday.
    “Last Saturday” is the object of the preposition “until”; together, they form a prepositional phrase.
  • Conjunction: Lulu has been dancing on stage since she was nine.
    Preposition: Tumkin hasn’t been to Malaysia since 2019.

Knowing how to distinguish between conjunctions and prepositions will make it easier for you to correctly capitalize titles and headings. For instance, some style manuals (like The Chicago Manual of Style) recommend lowercasing prepositions but capitalizing subordinating conjunctions in title case.

Examples
  • Conjunction: Life after Art: What You Forgot about Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room
    Capitalize subordinating conjunctions in some styles (e.g., Chicago).
    Preposition: Postwar: A History of Europe since 1965
    Lowercase prepositions in titles and headings.
  • Conjunction: What to Do After the Dust Has Settled
    Preposition: Life after Death

Usage guide

Use conjunctions to join or connect the parts of a sentence. Remember that coordinating conjunctions join two elements of equal status, while subordinating conjunctions subordinate the importance of one clause to that of another.

Examples
  • Coordinating conjunction: We were broke, but we were happy.
    By using a coordinating conjunction like but, we’re saying that both clauses, “we were broke” and “we were happy,” are equally important in the sentence.
  • Subordinating conjunction: Although we were broke, we were happy.
    The subordinating conjunction although makes the clause “we were broke” dependent on the main clause, “we were happy.”

In formal writing, insert a comma before a coordinating conjunction to clarify meaning. A comma is, however, generally unnecessary before a subordinating conjunction, unless it implies contrast.

Examples
  • Contrast: Farley thinks a light jacket is enough to wear at the North Pole, when he actually needs a hoodie.
    A comma indicates the relation of contrast.
  • No contrast: Lulu likes to dance when it rains.
    No contrast is implied, and a comma isn’t needed.

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a conjunction?
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Which of these contains a coordinating conjunction?
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Which punctuation style is preferred in formal writing?
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Which of these is punctuated correctly?
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Which of these is grammatically correct?
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Which of these is grammatically correct?
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Did You Know?

An oft-repeated grammar myth is that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.
Know more:Is It OK to End a Sentence with a Preposition?