What is a Concessive in English Grammar?

Hiker crossing river in Mountain Valley, Glencoe, Scotland
Carl wants to climb up the hill in spite of the bad weather. Sam Spicer / Getty Images

In English grammar, a concessive is a subordinating word or phrase that signals a contrast, qualification, or concession in relation to the idea expressed in the main clause. Also called a concessive connective.

A word group introduced by a concessive is called a concessive phrase, a concessive clause, or (more generally) a concessive construction. "Concessive clauses indicate that the situation in the matrix clause is contrary to expectation in the light of what is said in the concessive clause" (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985).

Examples and Observations

  • "Although she was broke, she took a suite at the Waldorf, and began strewing bad checks like confetti."  (John Bainbridge, "S. Hurok." Life, August 28, 1944)
  • "No matter how brilliantly an idea is stated, we will not really be moved unless we have already half thought of it ourselves." (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "Your government does not exist, and should not exist, in order to keep you or anybody else--no matter what color, no matter what race, no matter what religion--from getting your damn fool feelings hurt." (Kurt Vonnegut, "Why You Can’t Stop Me From Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson." If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young, ed. by Dan Wakefield. Seven Stories Press, 2014)
  • "Octavian, though only 19, demanded the consulship (both consuls had been killed in battle)."
    (D.H. Berry, Introduction to Political Speeches by Cicero. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • "James sighed and mentioned how a warm personality, especially of the American sort, had a way of cooling one's appreciation of ancient beauty, irrespective of how grand the palazzo of which this personality was in possession, indeed irrespective of how fine or fast-moving her gondola." (Colm Toibin, The Empty Family. Scribner, 2011)
  • "He was rehearsing his address: ' ...the gift of citizenship carries great responsibility ... the time has come when delay can no longer be tolerated ... therefore let there no longer be doubt, either at home or abroad ... whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice, whatever the hardship, whatever the struggle ... we will rebuild...'
    "He paused and drank some black coffee. These were the words he would be remembered by. These were the words which would set the tone for the Presidency."  (Richard Doyle, Executive Action. Random House, 1998)
  • "Regardless of what the mayor did, regardless of what civil rights leaders did, regardless of what planners of the demonstration did, the riot was going to happen. The authorities had been indifferent to the community's demand for justice; now the community was going to be indifferent to the authorities' demand for order."  (Tom Hayden, New York Review of Books, August 24, 1967)
  • "Patagonia, poor as she is in some respects, can, however, boast of a greater stock of small rodents than perhaps any other country in the world."  (Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, 1839)

The Functions and Positions of Concessives

"English has a number of constructions that are described as 'concessives'--they grant the truth of a proposition, the existence of an object, or the value of a variable, as background to performing some other speech act, such as an assertion or request. Some examples are given in (34):

(34a) Even if it's raining, you need to go outside.
(34b) (Even) though you're not tired, sit down.
(34c) Obama claims 'success' in isolating Iran, although China and others still resist sanctions.
(34d) Levels of the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere have risen to new highs in 2010 despite an economic slowdown in many nations that braked industrial output.

The concessives in (34a-c) concede the truth of some proposition, and the one in (34d) concedes the existence of something. Another common concessive is no matter, which concedes an arbitrary value to some variable, as exemplified in (35):

(35a) No matter what the weather is like, you need to go outside.
(35b) No matter how tired you are, sit down.
(35c) Obama claims 'success' in isolating Iran, no matter what China and others do.
(35d) Levels of the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere have risen to new highs in 2010, no matter how much the economy in various nations has slowed down.

"A curious property of no matter is that it can lack a copula, but nevertheless express predication... Some typical examples are given in (36). The no matter phrase in each case is of the form no matter wh-XP NP, where XP is typically an adjective denoting a scale, and NP is definite, and a reasonable paraphrase of the missing copula is 'may be.'

(36a) You need to go outside, no matter what the weather (may be).
(36b) No matter how tired your feet (may be), sit down.
(36c) Obama claims 'success' in isolating Iran, no matter how negative the positions of other nations (may be).
(36d) Levels of the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere have risen to new highs in 2010, no matter how slow the economy in various nations (may be).

No matter what can be paraphrased by irrespective of NP. And no matter itself can be paraphrased by irrespective of, but then may be is required."  (Peter W. Culicover, Grammar & Complexity: Language at the Intersection of Competence and Performance. Oxford University Press, 2013)

"In a nutshell then, speech-act concessives allow the speaker to signal that he or she 'breaches pragmatic protocol,' and to soften that breach with a token of acknowledgement. Speech act concessives thus are by definition 'mixed messages...' 

Concessives are strongly biased toward sentence-medial realization. The examples below give illustrations of typical and atypical concessive parentheticals with if.

(35a) The message turned out to be, if not altogether graspable, at least mildly approachable. [typical]
(35b) If not Shakespearean, the conversation was at least spirited, thanks to Bleeck's ban on radios and jukeboxes. [atypical]"

(Martin Hilpert, Constructional Change in English: Developments in Allomorphy, Word Formation, and Syntax. Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Concessive Relations

  • "A concessive relation expresses a relation of unexpectedness between two propositions. In English, concessive relations between two clauses, or between a clause and an adverbial, can be marked by a whole range of linguistic means. They include conjunctions such as although, while, and whereas, conjunctional adverbs such as nevertheless and still, and prepositions such as despite or in spite of. As the constructed examples (9) to (11) show, these three choices are largely synonymous and the selection of a particular type of connective depends on the syntactic environment. (9) Carl wants to climb up the hill although the weather is bad.
    (10) The weather is bad. Nevertheless Carl wants to climb up the hill.
    (11) Carl wants to climb up the hill in spite of ​the bad weather. In general, concessive constructions are semantically rather complex. This statement is supported by the observation 'that [concessives] develop relatively late in the history of a language and are also acquired much later than other types of adverbial clauses' (König 1994:679)."​ ​(Sebastian Hoffmann, Grammaticalization and English Complex Prepositions: A Corpus-Based Study. Routledge, 2005)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Concessive in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-concessive-grammar-1689782. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What is a Concessive in English Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-concessive-grammar-1689782 Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Concessive in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-concessive-grammar-1689782 (accessed March 22, 2023).