Of the three different kinds of conjunctions (coordinating, correlative and subordinating), subordinating conjunctions are the most difficult to recognize. However, that doesn't mean they're hard to master. In fact, you probably use them all the time without even noticing. So, let's take a closer look at them to see what's going on.
A subordinating conjunction is a word that connects an independent clause to a dependent clause. An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence. In other words, it does not need any additional information to operate as a sentence. The sentence "The student failed the test" is an example of an independent clause.
A dependent clause adds extra information to the main clause. These clauses cannot stand by themselves and their meaning is dependent on the independent clause. They are not complete sentences. For example, "because she didn't study" is not a complete sentence.
However, combine the two clauses, and we have "The student failed the test because she didn't study." A complete idea has been expressed and enough information has been presented to fully explain the thought. What joined the two clauses? The word "because." And there we have our first subordinating conjunction.
In English, there are a lot of subordinating conjunctions. Let's take a look at the most common ones, along with a few examples from some classic songs:
After - "Your heart will break like mine, and you'll want only me after you've gone" (Ella Fitzgerald)
Although - "Although I've been here before, he's just too hard to ignore" (Amy Winehouse)
As - "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realize there's nothing left" (Coolio)
As long as - "I don't care who you are, where you're from or what you did as long as you love me" (Backstreet Boys)
Because - "I'm everything I am because you loved me" (Celine Dion)
Before - "Just call me angel of the morning, angel. Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby" (Juice Newton)
Even if - "Even if the sky is falling down, you'll be my only" (Jay Sean)
If - "If you leave me now, you'll take away the biggest part of me" (Chicago)
Once - "Once in a blue moon, something good comes along." (Van Morrison)
Now that - "Baby, now that I've found you, I won't let you go" (Tony Macaulay/John MacLeod)
Since - "I guess I'll never be the same since I fell for you" (B.B. King)
Though - "Walk on through the rain though your dreams be tossed and blown" (Rodgers and Hammerstein)
Unless - "We're never going to survive unless we get a little crazy" (Seal)
Until - "I'll keep on dreaming until my dreams come true." (Charlie Louvin)
When - "When I see you smile, I can face the world" (Bad English)
Where - "There's a light burning bright, showing me the way, but I know where I've been" (Scott Wittman)
While - "I look at the world, and I notice it's turning while my guitar gently weeps" (The Beatles)
You'll notice that when a dependent clause precedes an independent clause, there's a comma between the two, indicating the beginning of the independent clause. However, when the independent clause comes first, there's usually no need to separate the two clauses with a comma.
Need more examples? You can familiarize yourself with 48 subordinating conjunctions using our word list.
As with any grammatical device, using subordinating conjunctions too often becomes repetitive and boring. Of course, certain types of writing require a bare-bones style without much flavor. Still, subordinating conjunctions should only be used sparingly. Constantly using the same device not only sounds rote, but also sounds like the work of an inexperienced writer. Experienced writers know that subordinating conjunctions, and other tools, should only be used when warranted.
There's another group of words that sometimes introduce dependent clauses. These are called relative pronouns. Although they look and act very similar to coordinating conjunctions, they're quite different.
True relative pronouns are "that," "who" and "which." They differ from subordinating conjunctions because they act as the subject of a dependent clause. Subordinating conjunctions do not. Subordinating conjunctions are followed by the subject of their clause. To clear all that up, here's a couple of examples:
- Relative pronoun: John is the guy who came over for dinner last week.
Here, we have two clauses. "John is the guy" is the independent clause (that could stand alone), and "who came over for dinner last week" is the dependent clause (providing us with more information). The word "who" is a relative pronoun (acting as the subject of the dependent clause).
- Subordinating conjunction: We talked about music and movies while we ate.
Here, "We talked about music and movies" is the independent clause (that could stand alone) and "while we ate" is the dependent clause (providing us with more information). In this example, both clauses have the subject "we." The word "while" does not act as the subject of the dependent clause.
Now that you have a clearer understanding of subordinating conjunctions, you can use them with new purpose and vigor. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned coordinating and correlative conjunctions. These conjunctions are similar, in that they work as connectors, but they function in different ways.