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Ministry of Education.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Exploring language content page

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