Definition and Examples of Correlative Conjunctions

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In English grammar, correlative conjunction is a phrase that joins together two other words, phrases, or clauses. These conjunctive pairs, as they are sometimes known, are used commonly in everyday communication. 

How to Recognize Them

The elements connected by correlative conjunctions are usually parallel or similar in length and grammatical form. Each element is called a conjoin. An easy way to spot them in a sentence is to remember that they always travel in pairs. Conjoins must also match:

  • nouns with nouns
  • pronouns with pronouns
  • adjectives with adjectives

These are the primary correlative conjunctions in English:

  • both . . . and
  • either . . . or
  • neither . . . nor
  • not . . . but
  • not only . . . but also

Other pairs that sometimes have a coordinating function include the following:

  • as . . . as
  • just as . . . so
  • the more . . . the less
  • the more . . . the more
  • no sooner . . . than
  • so . . . as
  • whether . . . or

Used properly in a sentence, correlative conjunctions (shown in italics) look like this:

  • I like not only to be loved but also to be told that I am loved.
  • I have neither been there nor done that
  • In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.

All of these sentences can be broken into two separate sentences, and their overall meanings will not change. Correlative conjunctions allow you to compare and contrast, giving your language additional context.

Proper Parallel Structure

There are a number of grammatical rules governing how to use correlative conjunctions properly. One common mistake that English students make is not pairing the proper preposition by using a conjunction. For example:

  • Incorrect: The cabinet was designed not only for storing linens but also protecting wool clothing.
  • Correct: The cabinet was designed not only for storing linens but also for protecting wool clothing.

This rule extends to pronouns and antecedents as well. When joining two subjects (the antecedents), any pronoun that follows must agree with the closest antecedent. Look at this example:

  • Incorrect: Neither your mother nor her sisters are planning to donate her portion of the estate to charity.
  • Correct: Neither your mother nor her sisters are planning to donate their portion of the estate to charity.
  • Incorrect: Either the twins or Bobby will say they can't go.
  • Correct: Either the twins or Bobby will say he can't go.

Another thing to remember is that correlative conjunctions can only join two other words. Joining three words looks awkward and is grammatically incorrect. For instance:

  • Incorrect: Either lead, or follow, or get out of the way.
  • Correct: Either lead, follow, or get out of the way.