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Subordinating Conjunctions: Complexity & Punctuation

Which of the following sentences sounds better to you?

  • Jeff sighed. He saw that his report card didn’t contain any A’s.
  • Jeff sighed because he saw that his report card didn’t contain any A’s.

Most likely you prefer the second sentence. But why is this the case? After all, there’s only one difference between the sentences—the word because. It’s this word and others like it, known as subordinating conjunctions, that give readers crucial background information.

Without words like because, since, and while, the sentences you read would feel disjointed. In the first example—“Jeff sighed. He saw that his report card didn’t contain any A’s”—the audience can’t understand why Jeff sighed. Did he sigh because there were no A’s on his report card? It’s implied, but it’s not 100% clear to the reader. Yet, when you join the two clauses with the right word, everyone can see the relationship between the two individual ideas. That’s where subordinating conjunctions come in.

The right words help clarify your meaning as a writer or speaker so that your audience doesn’t get lost. When you can lead people on a journey through your choice of language while writing and speaking, you’re more likely to keep a captive audience. To do so, it’s important to understand what a subordinating conjunction, or joining word, is and when to use one in your writing.

Before you continue with this article, it’s important to have a grasp of joining word fundamentals. This informative site gives all the background information you need on what a subordinating conjunction is and the subordinating conjunction definition. Return here once you have the basics down.

What is a subordinating conjunction? See if you can determine which word joins two clauses in the sentences below.

  • Joshua sneezed after a fly flew up his nose.
  • Susan flinched although the water balloon exploded 20 feet away.
  • They nearly stumbled when the earthquake shook the building.
  • He accidentally went to sleep before studying for his exam.
  • Whenever Lucy had her GPS device, she always knew her way around Los Angeles.

How did you do at identifying the joining words? In order from first to last, the joining words in the sentences above are after, although, when, before, and whenever. These words show us a natural progression. You’ll always find similar words before dependent clauses in a sentence. Not sure what this means exactly? Before you learn about independent and dependent clauses, let’s go over some basic definitions.

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Here is a Subordinating Conjunction Definition

Some sentences are simple. To be “simple” just means that a sentence expresses a complete thought. To do this, a sentence will explain an action using a verb and include a noun that completes the action. Here are some examples of simple sentences:

  • The dog chased the ball.
  • Linda went to the store.

However, not all sentences are simple. Some contain two complete thoughts, known as independent clauses. For instance, you have:

  • The boy threw the ball, and the dog chased it.
  • Linda ran out of almond milk, so she decided to go to the store.

In these examples, there are two related things occurring; each could be its own individual sentence. However, joining words connect clauses and help the audience understand the big picture. Click site to learn about these two sentence forms.

Additionally, there are times when sentences are even more complicated than the examples above. To form complex sentences, you connect clauses with subordinating conjunctions. Here’s a list of the most common joining words in this category:

After Although As As far as
As if As soon as As though Because
Before Even if Even though Except
How If In case (that) In order (that)
In that Now that Once Provided that
Rather than Since So that Than
That Though Unless Until
When Whenever Where Whereas
Wherever Whether While

Creating the Complex Sentence

What is a subordinate conjunction? You already know that a sentence must contain at least one verb and one noun to create a complete thought. Sometimes a sentence also contains an incomplete thought, in addition to a complete one. To make this work, you use subordinating conjunctions to link the phrases together.

If a clause includes any of the joining words from the list above, then it’s known as a dependent clause. Dependent clauses do not contain a complete thought by themselves and require more information. You can even turn independent clauses into dependent clauses by adding a subordinating conjunction. Here are some of the dependent clauses from previous examples:

  • After a fly flew up his nose…
  • Although the water balloon exploded far away…
  • When the earthquake shook the building…
  • Before studying for his exam…

Are you already a master of joining words? Here are some helpful articles on APA format and more styles of formatting academic papers. Check it out!

What is a Subordinating Conjunction? Breaking Down Complex Sentences

There are really two main purposes for this type of joining word. First, subordinating conjunctions help you transition between independent and dependent clauses. They help show the order something happens in and describe the cause and effect of an action.

  • I will easily pass my law exam after a few more hours of studying.
  • Stewart decided to watch reality television programs before he worked on his homework assignment.

Second, subordinating conjunctions show your audience which of two clauses is most important. For the greatest impact in your writing, you want your main idea to arrive last in a sentence. This will put emphasis on the main idea in your reader’s mind. Even though this makes for more impactful writing, it is possible to order the independent and dependent clauses in a sentence in any order.

Which sentence puts emphasis in the right place?

This:

  • Teresa had a horrible allergic reaction after she ate a peanut butter sandwich.

Or this:

  • After Teresa ate a peanut butter sandwich, she had a horrible allergic reaction.

A subordinating conjunction can also relate time and place in a sentence. Words like once, while, when, whenever, where, wherever, before, and after fall under the subordinating conjunction definition. These joining words create transitions and connect the subject of the sentence with time or place. Practice using this form of a subordinating conjunction and check it over with a friend.

Having trouble telling? Look over the lesson above for a clearer understanding of “What is a subordinating conjunction?” Re-read the explanations and examples, and take note of the main points.

What’s the Proper Structure for Including Subordinating Conjunctions in Complex Sentences?

There are several ways to add a subordinating conjunction to sentences. The most popular formats are:

Formula #1

Main clause + subordinating conjunction containing clause.

  • I shuffled the deck of cards before dealing out the cards.

Formula #2

Independent clause + comma + main clause.

  • Whenever she raises her hand, her dog Lila plays dead.

Punctuation also gets a little tricky when using a subordinating conjunction. Relative pronouns such as who, which, and where can act as subordinating conjunctions, but the punctuation changes depending on whether it functions in an essential vs. nonessential clause. You can tell if the sentence is essential vs. nonessential by looking at the nouns being described. For example:

  • All of the dogs barked at the delivery guy who was carrying a pile of packages.

In this sentence, the relative pronoun who emphasizes a general noun (delivery guy). Which delivery guy? The one who was carrying a pile of packages. Yet, a nonessential clause punctuates like this:

  • Ava rode the bus to Barnsdall Park, where she used to go to bathe in the sun.

Here, where says more about the specific park, Barnsdall Park. Since that part of the sentence is not necessary, it is connected by a comma and becomes a nonessential clause.  Besides essential vs. nonessential clauses, there are also clauses known as interrupters that require punctuation.

  • Susan, who bought all of the groceries, laid out the receipts for Morgan to find. 

What is a coordinating conjunction without punctuation? This way of punctuating allows for a clause to describe the relative pronoun or noun before diving into the heart of the sentence. Knowing these punctuation techniques can take your understanding of subordinating conjunction definitions to the next level. 

Now you try! See if you can answer the question:What is a subordinating conjunction?” and write your own subordinating conjunction definition. It’s great practice.See if you can use the formulas you just learned containing dependent and independent clauses. Once you’ve gotten some practice, try rewriting the sentence using a different sentence structure.

Review Questions

  1. What is a subordinating conjunction?
  2. According to the subordinating conjunction definition above, what are the rules on punctuation?
  3. What is a subordinating conjunction in relation to time and place?
  4. Create a complex sentence using a subordinating conjunction. 

Published March 17, 2019. Updated May 22, 2020.

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