Coordinating vs. Subordinating Conjunctions

By Maeve Maddox

When I received not one, but three emails telling me that I’d punctuated a sentence with because incorrectly, I decided I’d better write a post about adverbial clauses of reason.

Here’s the example that drew the criticism:

Incorrect: The famous author lives in a small town, because she doesn’t like the noise of a big city. 

Correct : The famous author lives in a small town because she doesn’t like the noise of a big city.

Here are the objections I received:

1. Number five conflicts with my 11th grade English teacher’s rule. Separate the two halves of a compound sentence with a comma. Was she wrong?

2. I disagree with #5. Two independent clauses should be separated by a comma.”She doesn’t like the noise of the big city.” is an independent clause. Remove the word “because” and you have two sentences that can stand alone.

3. ERROR. “she doesn’t like the noise of a big city” is also an independent clause, and the comma is required. This is a compound sentence with “because” joining two independent clauses.

The readers are perfectly correct about the rule for punctuating a compound sentence. Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction are separated by a comma:

Polio would have stopped a lesser man, but Franklin was determined to follow his cousin into the White House.

The conjunctions used to join independent clauses in compound sentences are coordinating conjunctions. The most common coordinating conjunctions are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

A coordinating conjunction used to join clauses has only one function: it joins clauses of equal importance. Removing the conjunction between two independent clauses will leave two simple sentences whose meanings remain unchanged. They can stand alone as complete sentences.

A subordinating conjunction, on the other hand, has two functions: it joins, and it shows a relationship between the clauses that it joins. Removing a subordinating conjunction defeats the purpose for which it exists.

The subordinating conjunction because is used to introduce an adverbial clause of cause or reason. The fact that the author doesn’t like the noise of the big city explains why she lives in a small town.

Adverbial clauses of reason are also introduced by the subordinating conjunctions since, as long as, as, inasmuch as, insofar as, and due to the fact that.

Reminder: When the adverbial clause comes first in the sentence, it is followed by a comma. When the adverbial clause comes after the independent clause, there is (usually) no need for a comma. For example:

Since you asked nicely, you may go to the library on Saturday.

You may go to the library on Saturday since you asked nicely.

Modern business style tends to reject lengthy conjunctions like inasmuch as and due to the fact that. Because, as, and since are the least wordy choices. Some speakers object to using since to introduce a clause of reason because since is also used to introduce clauses of time. Ordinary attentiveness to revision ought to be sufficient to avoid ambiguity with since.

Here’s what The Chicago Manual of Style has to say about the objection to causal since:

[Since] may relate either to time or to causation. Some writers erroneously believe that the word relates exclusively to time. But the causal since was a part of the English language before Chaucer wrote in the fourteenth century, and it is useful as a slightly milder way of expressing causation than because. But where there is any possibility of confusion with the temporal sense, use because.

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5 Responses to “Coordinating vs. Subordinating Conjunctions”

  • John

    I agree with you, Maeve.

  • Dale A Wood

    BRAVO, Maeve!
    Also, I am astounded by people’s not knowing the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions.
    Also point out the latter that use the words despite and in spite of.
    DAW

  • RHagg

    My most recent copy of the Chicago Manual of Style is the 15th edition. I hope it isn’t too different from the current edition.

    In 6.36, “Comma following main clause,” it states, “A dependent clause that follows a main clause should _not_ be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. If it is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma”

    Several examples follow, including these two contrasting examples: “He didn’t run because he was afraid; he ran because it had started to rain” and “He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.”

    In my opinion, your example is correct because the second clause is restrictive, but I think that your explanation is incomplete. In my writing, a “because” clause is more often non-restrictive and takes the comma.

  • Precise Edit

    Comma rules are neither illogical nor arbitrary. Whereas words such as “and” join two separate messages but are part of neither, words such as “because” are part of the second statement, i.e., the second message begins with, not after, the conjunction. When we realize that the subordinating conjunction is a part of the meaning, we see that the second statement cannot serve as an independent clause and, therefore, should not be separated from the first clause by a comma. I frequently correct this comma error-by removing the comma-in clients’ documents.

  • Anthony

    Does anyone know why, when “for” is used like because, it isn’t considered subordinating. I know it’s considered more formal and isn’t common.

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