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Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions connect subordinate clauses to independent clauses. An independent clause has both a subject and a verb, and it can stand alone as a complete thought. A subordinate clause has a subject and a verb, but it depends on the independent clause for its meaning. Note that the subordinate clause always includes the subordinating conjunction.

  • [I went to the gym] [even though I was already tired.]
  • [independent clause] [subordinating conjunction + subordinate clause]

Some common subordinating conjunctions include:

as, as if, as thoughthough
even, even if, even thoughwhen

Some examples of sentences using subordinating conjunctions are:

  • We will go to Ethan’s house after we finish practice.
  • I enjoyed talking to him because he has such a good sense of humor.
  • Deanna will not join the band unless she can be the lead singer.

Many subordinating conjunctions express relationships having to do with time (such as before, after, while, when, and until). These words also function as adverbs, but when they link independent and subordinate clauses, they become subordinating conjunctions. They tell when the action in the independent clause occurred in relation to the action in the subordinate clause.

  • He used to be a mechanic before he became a teacher.
  • (When was he a mechanic? Before he became a teacher)
  • Marcia waited in the lobby while Evan talked to the desk clerk.
  • (When did Marcia wait in the lobby? While Even talked to the desk clerk.)

The subordinating conjunction because explains why something happens.

  • I love this club because they play the newest music.
  • (Why do I love this club? Because they play the newest music.)

Since can express either an explanation (synonymous with because) or a time relationship (sometimes used with ever).

  • We cannot buy lunch since we do not have any money.
  • (This is an explanation; it tells why we cannot buy lunch.)
  • He has been afraid to go diving ever since he was bitten by a shark.
  • (This is a time relationship; it tells when his fear began.)

Subordinating conjunctions such as although, except, even though, and though express exceptions (cases where some usual rule does not apply) or indicate a condition that exists despite some other condition.

  • She was an excellent basketball player even though she was not very tall.
  • (This expresses an exception: Most basketball players are tall.)
  • I loved my apartment although it was small and cramped.
  • (Despite its smallness, I still loved my apartment.)

A subordinate clause introduced by if expresses a condition that must be met, and the independent clause describes what will happen when that condition is met. Unless can also express conditions or requirements.

  • You can play on the team if you come to practice regularly.
  • You cannot play on the team unless you come to practice regularly.

No punctuation is needed before a subordinating conjunction. Notice, however, that if the order of the clauses is reversed, a comma is always required after the subordinate clause.

  • [Subordinating conjunction + subordinate clause], [independent clause]
  • Before he became a teacher, he used to be a mechanic.
  • While Evan talked to the desk clerk, Marcia waited in the lobby.

The relative pronouns that, which, who, whom, and whose also function much like subordinating conjunctions because they introduce subordinate clauses.

Gray Area: Using “Than” with Personal Pronouns

Some grammarians insist that the word than can only be used as a subordinating conjunction. Therefore, they argue, when than is followed by a personal pronoun, the pronoun must be in the nominative case because it is the subject of the subordinate clause. For example:

  • Tom is much taller than I.
  • (It is assumed that the rest of the subordinate clause has been omitted: “Tom is much taller than I am tall.”)

Others insist that in this situation, than is being used as a preposition. Therefore, pronouns following it should be in the objective case.

  • Tom is much taller than me.

One way to avoid the problem in your writing is to always include the “assumed” verb in the subordinate clause:

  • Preferable: She is more qualified for the position than he is.
  • Not: She is more qualified for the position than him.
  • Not: She is more qualified for the position than he.

Gray Area: “As” versus “Like”

Some grammarians insist that like can only be used as a preposition, not a conjunction, so it should only introduce nouns or pronouns. These grammarians recommend the use of the conjunctions as, as if, or as though to introduce clauses.

  • preposition [noun]
  • She sings like [a bird].
  • Her perfume smelled like [roses].
  • subordinating conjunction [subordinate clause]
  • I felt as if [I would die of happiness].
  • The sky looked as if [it would soon rain].

However, just as with than, there are many examples of like being used both as a preposition and as a conjunction. Many writers and speakers would see no difference between “I felt like I wanted to cry” and “I felt as if I wanted to cry,” except that the second example is more formal sounding.

Common Pitfall: “Than” versus “Then”

Writers often confuse the words than and then because they sound alike when spoken. Remember that than is used to make comparisons and then is used to indicate a point in time.

  • Incorrect: You reacted more calmly then I would have.
  • Correct: You reacted more calmly than I would have.
  • Incorrect: They changed clothes and than they went swimming.
  • Correct: They changed clothes and then they went swimming.

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