Conjunctions allow us to join smaller, basic sentences (or parts of sentences) together and can also shorten the two sentences they join by sharing subjects. The most common are and, but and then, followed by although, because, however, therefore, moreover and so on. Sometimes they seem to separate rather than join, but both functions are related. (Check out “Comma, ideas about” for a longer discussion about the relationship between joining and separating.)
The word “conjunction” means, in Latin, “joining with”. It’s probably safer to think of it as a linking rather than a joining, otherwise confusion arises when we use conjunctions like but, not and although, which are clearly based on exceptions rather than shared ideas.
Once we have accepted the basic idea of linking, analysis and discussion about the use of conjunctions gets a little more complicated. There are three main ideas which are useful to describe conjunctions in English:
- that conjunctions join ideas in a sentence (linking coordinate clauses)
- that conjunctions allow less important ideas to be joined to a main idea in a sentence (linking subordinate clauses or phrases to a main clause)
- that conjunctions allow ideas to be set up as a balanced pair in a sentence (comparison/comtrast by correlated conjunctions)
This is the default use for conjunctions, and most conjunctions can fit into this category: eg
for, because, and, nor, but, or, yet, so as well as some less common ones such as nor, neither, no more, only.
These are conjunctions which allow us to attach new ideas to an existing main clause. Subordinate clauses fine-tune the ideas in the main clause, providing more details, limits, expansions, timeframes and much more. Examples are:
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, not even, since, so, so that, than, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, and while.
There are six main sets of correlating conjunctions, and they need to be used as a set (beginning with their use as a pair) in order to fulfil their function of comparing or contrasting two or more things or ideas. They are:
not only…but (also)
In the beginning, no conjunctions
English conjunctions, somewhat like other bits of the language, tend to follow workable guidelines rather than strict rules. It’s possible to treat them quite disrespectfully and still make sense within a sentence. That’s not to say that there are no controversies: and the biggest controversy is whether conjunctions can occur at the beginning of the sentence or must always take their place between the parts of the sentence that they link. Back in the days when grammar was taught in schools, it was a hard and fast rule that one never began a sentence with a conjunction and it was pretty rigorously enforced.
As the reader may find as they wander around this site, I’ve consciously made a decision to break this rule whenever I damn well feel like it. My reason for doing this is to preserve a particular register (degree of formality) which brings the text closer to the rhythms and patterns of speech. My moment of doubt about doing this evaporated when I found that no less an authority than the Chicago Manual of Style, which I have adopted, adapted and taught for many years, has now reached the conclusion that the rule should never have existed and has no historical basis. And so I shall now break it in clear conscience.
Mind you, I still reserve the right to be annoyed by an upcoming generation of speakers who persist in prefacing every sentence, in particular any answer to any question, with the conjunction so. I suffer from cognitive dissonance because I keep looking for an earlier idea to which this new idea has been connected and from which the new idea is a logical product, and by the time I have worked out that there’s nothing prior to connect to, the opportunity to listen has passed me by.
I’ll just have to stop being a literalist, won’t I? Or get an upgraded short-term memory bank.