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 coordinating conjunctions (read on to see specific descriptions of each one):
(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.)
When a coordinating conjunction connects two independent 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. 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 (especially in newspapers) will omit that final comma:
- Ulysses spent his summer studying basic math, writing, and reading comprehension.
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 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, 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 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.
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 that one idea is chronologically sequential to another: “Tashonda sent in her applications and waited by the phone for a response.”
- To suggest that one idea is the result of another: “Willie heard the weather report and promptly boarded up his house.”
- To suggest that one idea is in contrast to another (frequently replaced by but in this usage): “Juanita is brilliant and Shalimar has a pleasant personality.
- To suggest an element of surprise (sometimes replaced by yet in this usage): “Hartford is a rich city and suffers from many symptoms of urban blight.”
- To suggest that one clause is dependent upon another, conditionally (usually the first clause is an imperative): “Use your credit cards frequently and you’ll soon find yourself deep in debt.”
- To suggest a kind of “comment” on the first clause: “Charlie became addicted to gambling — and that surprised no one who knew him.”
- 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 investment counselor.”
- To connect two ideas with the meaning of “with the exception of” (and then the second word takes over as subject): “Everybody but 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 . . .
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 the little brother in the correlative pair, neither-nor (see below):
- He is neither sane nor brilliant.
- That is neither what I said nor what I meant.
It can 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.
It is possible to use nor without a preceding negative element, but it is unusual and, to an extent, rather stuffy:
- George’s handshake is as good as any written contract, nor has he ever proven untrustworthy.
The word 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 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) 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.
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 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 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. 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.
* Authority used for this section on the uses of and, but, and or: A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. Used with permission. Examples our own.
Then vs. Than
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 than Pincher 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 me.
- 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 I [am handsome].
- 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
- as if
- as long as
- as though
- even if
- even though
- if only
- in order that
- now that
- rather than
- so that
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 be.”
- Whether you win this race or lose it doesn’t matter as long as you do your best.
Correlative conjunctions sometimes create problems in parallel form. Click here for help with those problems. Here is a brief list of 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, as a result are used to create complex relationships between ideas. Refer to the section on coherence 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).