Some words are satisfied spending an evening at home, alone,
eating ice-cream right out of the box, watching Seinfeld re-runs on
TV, or reading a good book. Others aren't happy unless they're out on the
town, mixing it up with other words; they're joiners and they just
can't help themselves. A conjunction is a joiner, a word that connects
(conjoins) parts of a sentence.
The simple, little conjunctions are called
conjunctions (It may help you remember these conjunctions by recalling that
they all have fewer than four letters. Also, remember the acronym
Be careful of the words then and now; neither is a
coordinating conjunction, so what we say about coordinating conjunctions'
roles in a sentence and punctuation does not apply to those two words.)
When a coordinating conjunction connects two
clauses, it is often (but not always) accompanied by a comma:
Ulysses wants to play for UConn,
but he has had trouble
meeting the academic requirements.
When the two independent clauses connected by
a coordinating conjunction are nicely balanced or brief, many writers will
omit the comma:
Ulysses has a great jump shot but he isn't quick on his feet.
The comma is always correct
when used to separate two independent clauses connected by a coordinating
conjunction.A comma is also correct when and is
used to attach the last item of a serial list, although many writers
(especially in newspapers) will omit that final comma:
Ulysses spent his summer studying basic math, writing, and
When a coordinating conjunction is used to
connect all the elements in a series, a comma is not used:
Presbyterians and Methodists
and Baptists are the
prevalent Protestant congregations in Oklahoma.
A comma is also used with
expressing a contrast:
This is a useful rule, but difficult to remember.
In most of their other roles as joiners (other than joining
independent clauses, that is), coordinating conjunctions can join two
sentence elements without the help of a comma.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald are among the American
expatriates of the between-the-wars era.
Hemingway was renowned for his clear style
insights into American notions of male identity.
It is hard to say whether Hemingway
or Fitzgerald is the
more interesting cultural icon of his day.
Although Hemingway is sometimes disparaged for his unpleasant
portrayal of women and for his glorification of machismo, we
nonetheless find some sympathetic, even heroic, female figures in his novels
and short stories.
Beginning a Sentence with And or
A frequently asked question about
conjunctions is whether and or but can be used at the
beginning of a sentence. This is what R.W. Burchfield has to say
about this use of and:
The same is true with the conjunction
but. A sentence beginning with and or but will
tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function.
Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind:
(1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without
the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be
connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still
seems appropriate, use it.
Among the coordinating conjunctions, the most common, of
course, are and, but, and or. It might be helpful to
explore the uses of these three little words. The examples below by no means
exhaust the possible meanings of these conjunctions.
To suggest a contrast that is unexpected in light of the first
clause: "Joey lost a fortune in the stock market,
but he still seems
able to live quite comfortably."
To suggest in an affirmative sense what the first part of the
sentence implied in a negative way (sometimes replaced by on the contrary):
"The club never invested foolishly,
but used the services of a sage
To connect two ideas with the meaning of "with the exception
of" (and then the second word takes over as subject): "Everybody
Goldenbreath is trying out for the team."
To suggest that only one possibility can be realized, excluding
one or the other: "You can study hard for this exam
or you can fail."
To suggest the inclusive combination of alternatives: "We can
broil chicken on the grill tonight, or we can just eat leftovers.
To suggest a refinement of the first clause: "Smith College is
the premier all-women's college in the country, or so it seems to
most Smith College alumnae."
To suggest a restatement or "correction" of the first part of
the sentence: "There are no rattlesnakes in this canyon,
or so our
guide tells us."
To suggest a negative condition: "The New Hampshire state motto
is the rather grim "Live free or die.""
To suggest a negative alternative without the use of an
imperative (see use of and above): "They must approve his political
style or they wouldn't keep electing him mayor."
The Others . . .
NOR is not extinct, but it is not used nearly as often as the other
conjunctions, so it might feel a bit odd when nor does come up in
conversation or writing. Its most common use is as the little brother in the
correlative pair, neither-nor (see below):
He is neither sane
That is neither what I said
nor what I meant.
It can be used with other negative
That is not what I meant to say,
nor should you
interpret my statement as an admission of guilt.
It is possible to use nor without a
preceding negative element, but it is unusual and, to an extent, rather
George's handshake is as good as any written contract, nor has
he ever proven untrustworthy.
YET functions sometimes as an adverb and has several meanings: in
addition ("yet another cause of trouble" or "a simple yet noble woman"),
even ("yet more expensive"), still ("he is yet a novice"), eventually ("they
may yet win"), and so soon as now ("he's not here yet"). It also functions
as a coordinating conjunction meaning something like "nevertheless" or
"but." The word yet seems to carry an element of distinctiveness that
but can seldom register.
John plays basketball well,
yet his favorite sport is
The visitors complained loudly about the heat,
continued to play golf every day.
In sentences such as the second one, above,
the pronoun subject of the second clause ("they," in this case) is often
left out. When that happens, the comma preceding the conjunction might also
disappear: "The visitors
complained loudly yet continued to play golf every day."
Yet is sometimes combined with other
conjunctions, but or and. It would not be unusual to see and yet in sentences like the ones above. This usage is acceptable.
FOR is most often used as a preposition, of course, but it does
serve, on rare occasions, as a coordinating conjunction. Some people regard
the conjunction for as rather highfalutin and literary, and it does
tend to add a bit of weightiness to the text. Beginning a sentence with the
conjunction "for" is probably not a good idea, except when you're singing
"For he's a jolly good fellow. "For" has serious sequential implications and
in its use the order of thoughts is more important than it is, say, with because or
since. Its function is to introduce the reason for the
John thought he had a good chance to get the job,
his father was on the company's board of trustees.
Most of the visitors were happy just sitting around in the
shade, for it had been a long, dusty journey on the train.
Be careful of the conjunction
SO. Sometimes it can connect two independent clauses along with a
comma, but sometimes it can't. For instance, in this sentence,
Soto is not the only Olympic athlete in his family, so are his
brother, sister, and his Uncle Chet.
where the word so means "as well" or
"in addition," most careful writers would use a semicolon between the two
independent clauses. In the following sentence, where so is acting
like a minor-league "therefore," the conjunction and the comma are adequate
to the task:
Soto has always been nervous in large gatherings, so it is no
surprise that he avoids crowds of his adoring fans.
Sometimes, at the beginning of a sentence,
so will act as a kind of summing up device or transition, and when it
does, it is often set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma:
So, the sheriff peremptorily removed the child from the custody
of his parents.
In some parts of the United States, we
are told, then and than not only look alike, they
sound alike. Like a teacher with twins in her classroom, you need to
be able to distinguish between these two words; otherwise, they'll
become mischievous. They are often used and they should be used for
the right purposes.
Than is used to make comparisons. In the sentence "Piggy
would rather be rescued then stay on the island," we have
employed the wrong word because a comparison is being made between Piggy's two choices; we need
than instead. In the sentence,
"Other thanPincher Martin, Golding did not write
another popular novel," the adverbial construction "other than"
helps us make an implied comparison; this usage is perfectly
acceptable in the United States but careful writers in the UK try to
avoid it (Burchfield).
Generally, the only question about than arises
when we have to decide whether the word is being used as a
conjunction or as a preposition. If it's a preposition (and
Merriam-Webster's dictionary provides for this usage), then the word
that follows it should be in the object form.
He's taller and somewhat more handsome than
Just because you look like him doesn't mean you can
play better than him.
Most careful writers, however, will
insist that than be used as a conjunction; it's as if part of
the clause introduced by than has been left out:
He's taller and somewhat more handsome than
You can play better than
he [can play].
In formal, academic text, you should
probably use than as a conjunction and follow it with the
subject form of a pronoun (where a pronoun is appropriate).
Then is a conjunction, but it is
not one of the little conjunctions listed at the top of this page.
We can use the FANBOYS conjunctions to connect two
independent clauses; usually, they will be accompanied (preceded) by
a comma. Too many students think that then works the same
way: "Caesar invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England."
You can tell the difference between then and a coordinating
conjunction by trying to move the word around in the sentence. We
can write "he then turned his attention to England"; "he turned his
attention, then, to England"; he turned his attention to England
then." The word can move around within the clause. Try that with a
conjunction, and you will quickly see that the conjunction cannot
move around. "Caesar invaded Gaul,
and then he turned his
attention to England." The word and is stuck exactly there
and cannot move like then, which is more like an adverbial
conjunction (or conjunctive adverb — see below) than a coordinating
conjunction. Our original sentence in this paragraph — "Caesar
invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England" — is a
comma splice, a faulty sentence construction in which a comma
tries to hold together two independent clauses all by itself: the
comma needs a coordinating conjunction to help out, and the word then simply doesn't work that way.
A Subordinating Conjunction (sometimes called a
dependent word or subordinator) comes at the beginning of a Subordinate
(or Dependent) Clause and establishes the relationship between the
dependent clause and the rest of the sentence. It also turns the clause into
something that depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning.
He took to the stage
as though he had been preparing for
this moment all his life.
Because he loved acting, he refused to give up his dream
of being in the movies.
Unless we act now, all is lost.
Notice that some of the subordinating conjunctions in the table
below — after, before, since — are also prepositions, but as subordinators
they are being used to introduce a clause and to subordinate the following
clause to the independent element in the sentence.
Common Subordinating Conjunctions
after although as as if as long as as though because before even if even though
if if only in order that now that once rather than since so that than that
though till unless until when whenever where whereas wherever while
Strictly speaking, the word like
is a preposition, not a conjunction. It can, therefore, be used to
introduce a prepositional phrase ("My brother is tall
father"), but it should not be used to introduce a clause ("My
brother can't play the piano likeas he did
before the accident" or "It looks
like as if
basketball is quickly overtaking baseball as America's national
sport."). To introduce a clause, it's a good idea to use
as though, or as if, instead.
Like As I told you earlier, the
lecture has been postponed.
It looks like as if it's going to snow
Johnson kept looking out the window
as though he had someone waiting for him.
In formal, academic text, it's a good
idea to reserve the use of like for situations in which
similarities are being pointed out:
This community college is
like a two-year
liberal arts college.
However, when you are listing things that
have similarities, such as is probably more suitable:
The college has several highly regarded neighbors,
like such as the Mark Twain House, St. Francis
Hospital, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the UConn Law
that is used as a
conjunction to connect a subordinate clause to a preceding verb. In
this construction that is sometimes called the "expletive
that." Indeed, the word is often omitted to good effect, but the
very fact of easy omission causes some editors to take out the red
pen and strike out the conjunction that wherever it appears.
In the following sentences, we can happily omit the that (or
keep it, depending on how the sentence sounds to us):
Isabel knew [that]
she was about to be fired.
her fellow employees hadn't supported her.
I hope [that]
she doesn't blame me.
Sometimes omitting the that
creates a break in the flow of a sentence, a break that can be
adequately bridged with the use of a comma:
The problem is,
that production in her
department has dropped.
that we didn't have these
problems before she started working here.
As a general rule, if the sentence feels
just as good without the that, if no ambiguity results from
its omission, if the sentence is more efficient or elegant without
it, then we can safely omit the that. Theodore Bernstein
lists three conditions in which we should maintain the
When a time element intervenes between the verb and the
clause: "The boss said yesterday
that production in this
department was down fifty percent." (Notice the position of
When the verb of the clause is long delayed: "Our
annual report revealed that some losses sustained by this
department in the third quarter of last year were worse than
previously thought." (Notice the distance between the subject
"losses" and its verb, "were.")
When a second that can clear up who said or did
what: "The CEO said that Isabel's department was slacking off and
that production dropped precipitously in the fourth quarter."
(Did the CEO say that production dropped or was the drop a result of
what he said about Isabel's department? The second that makes
the sentence clear.)
Some conjunctions combine with other words to form what are
called correlative conjunctions. They always travel in pairs, joining
various sentence elements that should be treated as grammatically equal.
She led the team
not only in statistics but also
by virtue of her enthusiasm.
Polonius said, "Neither a borrower
nor a lender
Whether you win this race
or lose it doesn't
matter as long as you do your best.