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Word Class: Conjunctions

The conjunction is a small but important closed word class. It is sometimes called a "joining word" (from the Latin conjunctio : "the act of joining").

The most common conjunction is and.

  • My car had a puncture, and I was late for work.
  • Others are or and but.
  • We could go to the pictures, or we could get out a video. I like you, but I don't love you.

These conjunctions - and, or, and but - are technically known as co-ordinating conjunctions.

Sentences made up of clauses joined with and, or, and but are called compound sentences.

Compound Sentences

In a compound sentence, we can say that the two clauses have equal weight within the sentence.

  • I mowed the lawn, and I trimmed the edges.

Each clause can stand alone and be a separate sentence. Both clauses are called main clauses.

A compound sentence consists of two (or more) main clauses joined by a co-ordinating conjunction.

The co-ordination of clauses with "and" is very common in the language of young children. It is also very common in the casual speech of adults. Children have usually developed "and" as a way of linking clauses by about the age of two and a half. "But" comes later — between the ages of three and four. Research has shown that six-year-old children use "and" most of the time. By the time they are twelve, they are using both "and" and "but" appropriately.

Complex Sentences

As children get older, they use fewer compound sentences and more complex sentences. They also use different types of complexity within their sentences.

This section describes more complicated ways in which clauses can appear inside sentences.

In a compound sentence, two (or more) main clauses are joined within one sentence.

A different way of joining clauses is by subordination.

  • She could paint amazing pictures although she was only six.

In this sentence, there is one main clause:

  • She could paint amazing pictures

and one subordinate clause:

  • although she was only six.

The subordinate clause is dependent on the main clause; it cannot stand alone.

Although is a subordinating conjunction: it is attached to the subordinate clause.

Here are some common subordinating conjunctions that introduce subordinate clauses:

  • after, although, as, because, before, if, since, till, unless, until, when, where, while.

Some of these words also appear in the list of prepositions: before, after, as, until, since.

How can you tell whether they are conjunctions or prepositions?

These words are subordinating conjunctions when they introduce a clause:

  • The children washed their hands before they ate their tea.
  • He has become more responsible since he married Rema.

They are prepositions when they introduce a phrase:

  • The children washed their hands before tea.
  • He has become more responsible since his marriage.

Conjunctions and Relationships

It is sometimes helpful to see that conjunctions fall into groups according to meaning and can signal different relationships between parts of a sentence.

Conjunctions can show four main types of relationship. Some conjunctions fit more than one category.

  1. Adding information: and, but, or.
  2. Showing cause and effect: as, since, because, if.
  3. Showing time sequence: after, since, as, until.
  4. Contrasting one piece of information with another: unless, although.

Recognising the patterns of conjunction can help to clarify the way ideas are linked in whole texts and within and between sentences.

Subordinate Clauses

In complex sentences, any one of the elements — subject, object, complement, or adverbial — can be a subordinate clause.

Subordinate clause as subject:

What I need is an evening out.

Subordinate clause as object:

Peter hoped that she would come back.

Subordinate clause as complement:

That is what I want.

Subordinate clause as adverbial:

They returned after the party had finished.

In the examples above, the elements subject, object, complement, and adverbial are themselves whole clauses.

Nominal clauses

A subordinate clause that can function as subject, object, or complement is referred to as a nominal clause.

A nominal clause can be finite or non-finite.

Finite nominal clauses.

Finite nominal clauses can be introduced by a range of Wh words.

Whatever I said made her thoughtful.
Whoever left the back door open can shut it.
Why he tried to escape has never been explained.

In casual spoken English, it is unusual to find nominal clauses in the subject position. In the subject position, nominal clauses are usually more formal and appear in writing rather than speaking. However, they are common in the object position in children's speech.

The examples above would be most unusual in children's speech and also in their writing.

The examples below are much more common.

The big bad wolf said, "I am going to eat you up."
The big bad wolf said that he was going to eat him up.

Children begin to use finite nominal clauses from about the age of two and a half but always in the object position.

He'll tell you what to do.

I think it's very nice.

Gradually, finite nominal clauses also begin to appear as complements.

This is what I want.

Nine-year-old children were asked to read a paragraph that included the sentence, "For us to find him was difficult." They were asked, "What was difficult?" Nearly a third of the answers were wrong.

Non-finite nominal clauses

Present participle — verb forms ending in -ing:

I was parking the car.

Past participle — verb forms ending in -ed or -en:

I have parked the car.

I have eaten the last biscuit.

Infinitive — the base form of the verb. This form does not have a special ending.

With to: I want to write a book.

Without to: I can read it myself.

These non-finite verb forms can introduce non-finite nominal clauses:

Changing costumes takes ages.
To visit Queenstown is my greatest wish.
For a student to win that prize is a great honour for the school.

As with finite nominal clauses, these subject uses of non-finite nominal clauses are also very uncommon in children's speech and early writing. They are much more common in the object position.

I don't know what to do.
He loves driving fast cars.
They hate to lose.

Adverbial clauses

Like adverbs, adverbial clauses also tell how, why, when, where. As with nominal clauses, adverbial clauses can be finite or non-finite.

Finite adverbial clauses

Time: When you've finished the dishes, you can watch television.

Place: Put the letter where Mike will see it.

Manner: We cook our vegetables as Chinese people do.

Reason: They put their umbrellas up because it was starting to rain.

Concession: Although the weather was terrible, we still set out.

Condition: You can have some ice cream if you eat your vegetables.

Purpose: She went on tip toes so that she wouldn't wake the baby.

Non-finite adverbial clauses

Time: After kissing them goodnight, she turned out the light.

Place: Situated high on the hill, the house had a wonderful view of the harbour.

Reason: Being a pacifist, he spent some time in prison during the war.

Manner: Everyone had to get across without touching the two poles.

The earliest adverbial clauses to appear in children's language are usually those of time, and the first subordinating conjunction to appear is when, followed later by while, after, and before.

Adverbial clauses of reason also appear quite frequently, with because being the favourite subordinating conjunction. It seems that, by the age of about eight, children can use a wide range of subordinating conjunctions to introduce adverbial clauses of time — when, until, by the time that, before, whenever, every time that, while.

Other adverbial clauses such as place, manner, and concession appear much less frequently in the speech of primary school pupils.

More Subordinate Clauses

Relative clauses

It is common to find a subordinate clause embedded inside the subject or the object.

The police caught the despicable person who stole my car.

The clause "who stole my car" is a subordinate clause modifying the noun phrase "the despicable person".

The structure of the noun phrase is:

premodifier + head + post modifier
the despicable + person + who stole my car

The technical term for this type of subordinate clause is a relative clause.

Relative clauses are introduced by relative pronouns.

Relative pronouns

Subject Object Possessive

  Subject Object Possessive
personal who whom whose
  that that  
non-personal which which whose
  that that  

The relative clauses in the following sentences are in bold:

The video that we saw last night was a waste of money.

The man whose car was stolen was my next door neighbour.

The person who stole his car was an escaped prisoner.

Whom is used mainly in formal written English:

The teacher whom they appointed last year has been excellent.

In casual speech, it would be more usual to use who:

The teacher who they appointed last year has been excellent.

or even that:

The teacher that they appointed last year has been excellent.

Very formal usage:

The woman to whom she sent the parcel was Kim's aunt.

Less formal usage:

The woman who she sent the parcel to was Kim's aunt.

The relative pronoun can often be left out altogether:

The woman (who) she sent the parcel to was Kim's aunt.

The dog (that) we found on the beach has gone to a good home.

Unlike in English, in Chinese a relative clause always goes in front of the headword of the noun phrase. The headword is marked by de in front of it.

English: The book that I bought yesterday.

Chinese: Wo zuotian mai de shu.

I yesterday buy [de] book.

This Chinese type of construction can sometimes affect the way Chinese students construct their English.

Non-finite subordinate clauses

Some subordinate clauses contain non-finite verbs.

Present participle: Finding some of my friends, I sat down by them.

Past participle: Abandoned in the forest, Alice began to cry.

Infinitive: To call the waiter, he had to stand on a chair.

In non-finite subordinate clauses, the subject understood in the subordinate clause must be the same as the subject in the main clause.

[Alice was] abandoned in the forest. Alice began to cry.

Failure to check that the subject is identified correctly can result in bizarre sentences, such as:

Fried in garlic and olive oil, our guests enjoyed the mushrooms.

This suggests that the guests were fried in garlic and olive oil.

This particular misdemeanour is known as a misrelated participle. In casual speech, such errors can often pass unnoticed because the meaning is carried by intonation.

Taken as a whole, I quite liked the book.

Misrelated participles are quite easy to fix. If the clause modifies the object, it should be moved to follow the object.

Our guests enjoyed the mushrooms fried in garlic and olive oil.

I quite liked the book, taken as a whole.

The following extract from some writing by a year 7 pupil shows that the writer is obviously comfortable using non-finite clauses beginning with the present participle.

Dressing quickly I went over to my bag and checked that everything I needed was in there. Heading downstairs I noticed that my brother was also getting ready for his first day. Wanting to do something I set the table, and by the time I had finished everyone had drifted into the kitchen. Placing my lunch in my bag I said goodbye and set off for the great big Remuera Intermediate.

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Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers  Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009