A conjunction is a joiner: a word that connects (conjoins) parts of a sentence, such as words, phrases and clauses.
The simple, little conjunctions are called coordinating conjunctions:
(It may help you remember these conjunctions by recalling that they all have fewer than four letters. Also, remember the acronym FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. 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.)
- Ulysses wants to play for Queen’s, 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. See Punctuation Between Two Independent Clauses for further help.
A comma is also correct when and is used to attach the last item of a serial list, although many writers will omit that final comma:
- Ulysses spent his summer studying basic math, writing, and reading comprehension.
A comma is also used with but when 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), 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 and his 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.
The Use of Nor, Yet, For and So
The conjunction 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 part of the correlative pair neither-nor.
- That is neither what I said nor what I meant.
It can also be used with other negative expressions:
- That is not what I meant to say, nor should you interpret my statement as an admission of guilt.
The word yet functions sometimes as an adverb and has several meanings:
- in addition (yet another cause of trouble; a simple yet noble woman)
- even (yet more expensive)
- still (he is yet a novice)
- eventually (they may yet win)
- so soon as now (he’s not here yet).
Yet also functions as a coordinating conjunction meaning something like nevertheless or but. The word yet carries an element of distinctiveness that but cannot register.
- John plays basketball well, yet his favorite sport is badminton.
- The visitors complained loudly about the heat, yet they 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) can be left out. When that happens, the comma preceding the conjunction might also disappear:
- The visitors complained loudly yet continued to play golf every day.
The word 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 formal and literary, and it does tend to add a bit of weightiness to the text. Beginning a sentence with for is probably not a good idea, except when you’re singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” The function of for as a conjunction is to introduce the reason for the preceding clause:
- John thought he had a good chance to get the job, for 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. When the word so means “as well” or “in addition,” most writers use a semicolon between the two independent clauses. For instance:
- Soto is not the only Olympic athlete in his family; so are his brother, sister, and his uncle.
In the following sentence, where so means therefore, the conjunction and the comma are adequate:
- 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 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.
A subordinating conjunction (sometimes called a dependent word) 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 used to introduce a clause and to subordinate the following clause to the independent element in the sentence.
- After I finish my dinner, I’m going out.
- Before you go to bed, tidy up your room.
- Since my daughter is sick, I’ll work from home today.
Common Subordinating Conjunctions
- as if
- as long as
- as though
- even if
- even though
- if only
- in order that
- now that
- rather than
- so that
The Case of As and Like
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 like my father.” However, to introduce a clause, it’s a good idea to use as, as though, or as if, instead:
- As I told you earlier, the lecture has been postponed.
- It looks as if it’s going to snow this afternoon.
- 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:
- My red toque is like Sarah’s red toque.
However, when you are listing things that have similarities, such as is probably more suitable:
- He enjoyed a wide variety of healthy foods, such as smoothies, salads, and fish.
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.
- That is neither what I said nor what I meant.
- Whether you win this race or lose it doesn’t matter as long as you do your best.
Common Correlative Conjunctions
- both . . . and
- not only . . . but also
- not . . . but
- either . . . or
- neither . . . nor
- whether . . . or
- as . . . as
The conjunctive adverbs such as however, moreover, nevertheless, consequently, and as a result are used to create complex relationships between ideas. Refer to the section on Transitions Between Ideas for an extensive list of conjunctive adverbs categorized according to their various uses and for some advice on their application within sentences (including punctuation issues).