The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Parts of Speech > Conjunctions > Subordinating Conjunctions
What is a subordinating conjunction?
Subordinating conjunctions are used to create complex sentences containing one independent clause, or main clause, and one dependent, or subordinate, clause. The subordinating conjunction does two things: it introduces and subordinates the dependent clause (telling the reader that it’s less important than the independent clause), and it explains what relationship it has to the independent clause. Consider the following example:
- “I went to the supermarket. We were out of milk.”
Both of these sentences can stand on their own. However, there is no clear relationship between them. Instead, we can join them together with a subordinating conjunction, which would sound more natural:
- “I went to the supermarket since we were out of milk.”
The subordinating conjunction since transforms the second clause from an independent clause into a dependent clause—it subordinates it. “Since we were out of milk” can no longer stand alone, but is dependent on the independent clause that it’s now connected to.
The word since also clarifies that the relationship between the two clauses is one of cause and effect, and it tells the reader that the independent clause, “I went to the supermarket,” is more important.
Structure and punctuation
When we use subordinating conjunctions to join two clauses, it doesn’t matter which clause comes first: the subordinating conjunction may appear either at the beginning or in the middle of the new sentence. Therefore, the following two sentences are both correct:
- “I went to the supermarket since we were out of milk.”
- “Since we were out of milk, I went to the supermarket.”
Note that if when we place the subordinate conjunction in the middle of the sentence, as in the first example, we normally don’t need a comma. On the other hand, when we place the subordinating conjunction at the beginning of the sentence, as in the second example, we normally do need to use a comma.
For the sake of consistency, the independent clause will appear first in the examples we look at below, but remember that this order is reversible.
Functions of subordinating conjunctions
As mentioned, one of the jobs of a subordinating conjunction is to establish the relationship between the two clauses—which conjunction we use depends on the nature of that relationship. Below are some of the most common subordinating conjunctions and their functions:
Comparison / Concession
in order that
as long as
as soon as
Examples of subordinating conjunctions
We use as, because, and since interchangeably to state the cause of something. For example:
- “The project was successful as you all worked very hard.”
- “The project was successful because you all worked very hard.”
- “The project was successful since you all worked very hard.”
Each of the three examples expresses the same causal relationship, although as is a bit more formal in tone than because or since.
Comparison and concession
We can use as to state that two ideas are similar. We can also use just as to add extra emphasis to this statement. For example:
- “It’s pouring rain, as I thought it would.”
- “She was late again, just as we expected.”
- “He didn’t turn up, as you told me he wouldn’t.”
Note that the examples above flow better with a comma, even though the subordinating conjunction is not in the initial position.
Expressing contrasts and concessions
While and whereas both express contrast. For example:
- “My brother worked really hard, while I didn’t make much of an effort.”
- “I can’t stand watching tennis, whereas I love watching basketball.”
While and whereas can be used interchangeably, but whereas is often considered more formal. Note also that, like with (just) as above, we use a comma between the clauses even though these subordinating conjunctions are not in the initial position.
We use although, though, and even though to say that something occurred in spite of something else. Though and although are interchangeable, while even though adds extra emphasis. For example:
- “I went to that restaurant though/although I was told it wasn’t very good.”
- “I went to that restaurant even though I was told it wasn’t very good.”
We use the subordinating conjunctions even if, if, as long as, in case, provided that, and providing when referring to a hypothetical situation.
If is the most common conjunction for hypothetical sentences. We use it when one action is required for another to occur. For example:
- “I will buy you a pizza if you help me move my furniture.”
- “You should buy a new TV if you get a bigger apartment.”
As long as, provided, provided that, and providing all mean the same as if, but they emphasize the requirement of the conditional action. We can use them interchangeably:
- “I will buy you a pizza as long as/provided you help me move my furniture.” (I will only buy you a pizza if you help me.)
- “You should buy a new TV providing/provided that you get a bigger apartment.” (You should only buy a new TV if you get a bigger apartment.)
We use even if when an outcome will occur despite a hypothetical action. For example:
- “I will buy you a pizza even if you don’t help me move my furniture.” (I will buy the pizza anyway.)
- “He’s going to pass his test even if he doesn’t study.” (He will pass despite not studying.)
We use in case to suggest a precaution against a hypothetical possibility. For example:
- “I’m bringing an umbrella in case it starts raining.” (I’m worried it might rain, so I’m bringing an umbrella.)
- “She put her phone on silent in case it rang during the movie.” (She was concerned her phone would ring in the middle of the movie, so she silenced it.)
When the dependent clause is related to a place, we use where and wherever, but they are not interchangeable.
For most situations, we use where, as in:
- “He lives where it’s always sunny.” (He lives in a place that is sunny.)
- “Can we go where it’s a little quieter?” (Can we go to a place that is quieter?)
We use wherever to emphasize that we mean any or every place, rather than a specific location. For example:
- “I want to go wherever it’s quieter.” (I want to go to any place quieter; I don’t mind where.)
- “He bikes wherever he goes.” (He bikes to every place that he goes.)
We use in order that, so that, and so to give a reason. They are interchangeable in meaning, but differ in formality. Compare the following sentences:
- “Our boss asked us to take detailed notes in order that nothing would be forgotten.” (formal)
- “Our boss asked us to take detailed notes so that nothing would be forgotten.” (neutral)
- “Our boss asked us to take detailed notes so nothing would be forgotten.” (less formal)
To state that the action of the independent clause occurred first, we use before. For example:
- “I went shopping before I came home.” (I went shopping first.)
- “He won first prize in a spelling bee before starting fifth grade.” (He won the prize first.)
When two actions occur at the same time, there are several subordinating conjunctions we can use, but each has a slightly different meaning. If we are not adding any particular emphasis, we use when:
- “I was sleeping when the phone rang.”
- “I saw my brother when he was out with his friends.”
However, to emphasize that two actions occurred (or will occur) at exactly the same time, or in rapid succession, we use once or as soon as:
- “Please clean your room once you get home.”
- “Call me back as soon as you can.”
When the action of the independent clause happens second in a series of actions, we use after:
- “I went shopping after I finished work.” (I finished work first, then went shopping.)
- “He won first prize in a spelling bee after he started fifth grade.” (He started fifth grade first, then won a spelling bee.)
Up to a certain time
To state that one action stops when another one begins, we use until. For example:
- “He ran track until he moved here.” (He stopped running track when he moved here.)
- “You can borrow my jacket until I need it.” (You must stop using it when I need it.)
Any time or every time
Finally, we use whenever to state that the time doesn’t matter, or that two actions always happen together. For example:
- “Call me whenever you get home.” (Call me when you get home, but I don’t mind when that is.)
- “She cries whenever she sees a sad movie.” (She cries every time she sees a sad movie.)
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