Subordinating Conjunction

What can a subordinator do for my writing?

John Lennon playing guitar
"If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there would be peace." (John Lennon). Keystone Features/Getty Images

A subordinating conjunction is a connecting word or phrase (called a conjunction) that introduces a dependent clause, joining it to a main clause. Subordinating conjunctions (also known as subordinators, subordinate conjunctions, or complementizers) go with dependent clauses that are used to redefine or modify the main point of the sentence. A related concept is a coordinating conjunction, which sets up an equal partnership between the two clauses.

Most subordinating conjunctions are single words (such as because, before, and when). However, some subordinating conjunctions consist of more than one word (such as even though, as long as, and except that).

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

Conjunctions can bring different flavors of meaning to writing, building into the resulting sentence the relationship between the main and subordinate clause. There are five main classes of conjunctions, based on the type of meaning they convey.

  • Time-related conjunctions establish a period when the main clause will be performed. These include after, as soon as, as long as, before, once, still, until, when, whenever, and while. For example, "I will do the dishes after everyone has gone home" might be said by a hostess who prefers to enjoy her guests while they are there.
  • Concession and comparison conjunctions redefine the main clause in the context of the process being delivered. Concession conjunctions include although, as though, and even though. "Eliza wrote the Higgins report, even though it was assigned to Colonel Pickering." Comparison conjunctions include just as, though, whereas, in contrast to, and while: "Ellen v-logged about the results of the political meeting, in contrast to her arch-enemy who merely blogged."
  • Cause conjunctions illuminate the reason that the main clause activities were performed and are commonly engineered by using as, because, in order that, since, and so that. "Grant dreamed about cheese because he had eaten so much of it the night before."
  • Condition conjunctions set the rules under which the main clause will be performed and are indicated by even if, if, in case, provided that, and unless. "Unless it rains on Saturday, we will have the picnic in the park." Note that subordinate clauses can come first in a sentence, but they're still subordinate because without the main point they can't exist.
  • Place conjunctions determine where activities might occur and are primarily where, wherever, and whereas. "I will place my conjunction in the sentence wherever I please."

Putting the Subordinator First

"We'll have a picnic on Saturday" is an independent clause that can be modified by the dependent clause "it rains" using the conjunction "unless." But when we risked a picnic on Saturday's sunniness, we put the conjunction in front of a sentence: It rains on Saturday. Putting a subordinate conjunction (unless) in front of that sentence makes it dependent, and now requires a main clause to support it: "we'll have a picnic."

Putting the subordinate clause first can have interesting or even witty results. In his play "The Importance of Being Earnest," Oscar Wilde commented on the way people speak effusively when they are madly in love. Gwendolyn says to Jack, "If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life."

The 20th-century humorist Robert Benchley wrote, "After an author has been dead for some time, it becomes increasingly difficult for his publishers to get a new book out of him each year." Because Benchley put the conjunction and its subordinate clause first, he made the line funnier by delaying the effect.

Three Main Types of Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions can also be defined by the words used to create and separate the clauses. There are three main methods of separating and defining the role of the clauses, based on the number of words and their position in the sentences.

  • Simple subordinators consist of one word: although, if, since, that, unless, until, whereas, while, etc. Most of the time, single words are placed at the beginning of the dependent clause.

Jane Austen used the simple subordinator "that" to define a marriage in her novel "Pride and Prejudice," published in 1813. "Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character."

  • Complex subordinators consist of more than one word: in order that, such that, granted that, assuming that, so that, as long as, insofar as, in case, etc. Like single subordinators, complex subordinators are typically at the beginning of the dependent clauses.

Painter Pablo Picasso described the creative force with a complex subordinator: "I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it."

  • Correlative subordinators consist of pairs of words that relate two parts of the sentence: as and so, scarcely and when, if and then. These types of subordinators connect two dependent clauses into one independent sentences.

Musician John Lennon used a correlative subordinator to emphasize his point when he wrote: "If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there would be peace." The extra "then" in there intensifies the result.

Practice Subordinating Clauses

The following pairs of sentences can be combined using different sorts of conjunctions to make one sentence with interesting meanings. To see this effect, use different conjunctions or conjunctive phrases. You can put the phrases in whichever order you like.

  • I will help the man. He deserves it.
  • Mary came up. We were talking about her.
  • I admire Mr. Brown. He is my enemy.
  • I came. You sent for me.
  • Evelyn will come to school. She is able.
  • He knows he is wrong. He will not admit it.
  • The man is rich. He is unhappy.
  • The Mexican War came on. Polk was president.
  • I shall come tomorrow. You send for me.
  • You wish to be believed. You must tell the truth.
  • The dog bites. He ought to be muzzled.
  • It would be foolish to set out. It is raining.
  • Call at my office. You happen to be in town.
  • The cat ran up a tree. She was chased by a dog.
  • The sun shines brightly. It is very cold.