Grammar for Academic Writers: Conjunction Functions -->

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Grammar for Academic Writers: Conjunction Functions

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The overarching expectation of scholarly writing is that scholars provide readers with unique and complex arguments based on their synthesis and analysis of previous scholarship while also writing clear, sophisticated sentences in relation to those complex arguments. If that sounds easy to you, count yourself lucky! Whether English is your native language or not, once you begin to write about complex topics, writing itself can become more difficult because the ideas are more complex.

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In the Writing Center, I often work with students on clarifying their complex ideas by providing sentence structure revision recommendations. Some sentence structure issues I find students struggle with are conjunctions and, subsequently, semi-colon and comma use. In this blog post, I hope to help demystify conjunctions and related semi-colon and comma use.

As parts of speech, conjunctions serve to connect words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. The three types of conjunctions are coordinating conjunctions, paired conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions. Let’s take a look at each of these conjunctions!

Coordinating Conjunctions
Coordinating conjunctions are part of compound sentences which are sentences that have two independent clauses—independent clauses are complete sentences that have a subject, verb, and object. Since compound sentences have two independent clauses, if a writer wants to bring them together, they can do so in three ways: with a coordinating conjunction and a comma, with a coordinating conjunction and a semi-colon and a comma, and with semi-colon.

In the examples below, the highlighting and font correspond to the parts of the sentence: yellow highlighting in bold type is the subject of the sentence; green highlighting in underlined type is the verb of the sentence; blue highlighting in italicized type is the object of the sentence; grey highlighting in bold, underlined type is the coordinating conjunction of the sentence.

Coordinating Conjunction and a Comma
When two independent clauses—complete sentences with a subject, verb, and object—are brought together with a coordinating conjunction (such as “but” here), a comma is included before the coordinating conjunction.

Example: I like cinnamon lattes, but he prefers straight espresso.

Coordinating Conjunction and a Semi-colon and a Comma
Transition words, such as “however,” or “therefore,” might also serve as a coordinating conjunction in a sentence. When they do, they would be set off with both a semi-colon and a comma.

Example: I like cinnamon lattes; however, he prefers straight espresso.

No Coordinating Conjunction and a Semi-colon 
If two independent clauses are brought together without a coordinating conjunction or a transition word, then a semi-colon would be used.

Example: I like cinnamon lattes; he prefers straight espresso.

Paired Conjunctions
Now let’s take a look at paired conjunctions. Paired conjunctions are two words or phrases brought together to assist with making a point or to express alternatives. Note that paired conjunctions can create wordy sentences, so they shouldn’t be used often. Here are some examples of pared conjunctions:

both / and: Example: I like both cinnamon lattes and straight espresso.

either / or: Example: I could either have a cinnamon latte or a straight espresso.

not only / but also: Example: Not only do I like cinnamon lattes, but I also like straight espresso.

Subordinating Conjunctions
Finally, there are subordinating conjunctions. Subordinating conjunctions bring together a main clause and a subordinate clause to express the relationship between the two. There are two main ways subordinating conjunctions might be placed in a sentence—they might come after the main clause or before the main clause. There are many subordinating conjunctions, such as “until” and “while.”

Main Clause + Subordinate Clause  
I am cranky in the morning until I have my cinnamon latte.
I want a cinnamon latte while I wait for you.

Subordinate Clause + [comma] + Main Clause 
Note that when the subordinate clause comes before the main clause, a comma is used after the subordinate clause.

Until I have my cinnamon latte, I am cranky in the morning.
While I wait for you, I want a cinnamon latte.

Knowing how to use conjunctions, and subsequently, semi-colons and commas, can help ensure that readers are able to follow your arguments. The Writing Center has many resources on sentence structure and grammar to include our Mastering the Mechanics archived webinar series and our grammar modules where you can practice and test your knowledge of sentence structure and grammar.


What sentence structure, grammar, and or mechanics parts of speech do you struggle with? Also, let us know what tips you have for revising and proofreading for sentences for structure and clarity! 

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Veronica Oliver is a Writing Instructor in the Walden Writing Center. In her spare time she writes fiction, binge watches Netflix, and occasionally makes it to a 6am Bikram Yoga class.

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