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Coordination & Subordination

To learn appropriate and effective use of coordinating and subordinating conjunctions to combine sentences, phrases, and words.

To learn how to revise paragraphs for coherence, rhythm, and movement by combining sentences using coordination and subordination.

Coordination and coordinating conjunctions...

Coordinating conjunctions allow us to connect independent clauses of the same level of importance in a single sentence and avoid paragraphs composed of many short, repetitive simple sentences. Seven different coordinating conjunctions allow us to create distinct relationships between clauses:

and (the most common coordinating conjunction), is used to combine two similar ideas together:

The mechanic fixed the broken tail-light, and he replaced the brakes, too.

Note that the above sentence could also be written as a single clause by leaving out the pronoun "he" and using the coordinating conjunction "and" to connect, or coordinate, the two verbs in the sentence as follows "The mechanic fixed the broken tail-light and replaced the brakes, too."  A coordinating conjunction can connect words, phrases, and clauses.

but is used to join two contrasting ideas together:

I thought my tail-light was broken, but it was simply disconnected from the plug.

yet is similar to "but," in that it is used to join two contrasting ideas; however, "yet" is used instead of "but" to really emphasize a contrast:

She finally booked a trip to Paris, France, yet she only plans to stay four days.

or joins two alternative ideas together:

We can go out to dinner with my parents, or we can go to the movies with Mike and Sumi.

nor joins two negative alternatives together:

My boyfriend does not want to go out to dinner with my parents, nor does he want to go the movies with Mike and Sumi.

so is used to join clauses in a cause and effect relationship, and is similar in meaning to the subordinating conjunction "hence." Both words indicate an effect or result of something.  However, "hence" has a more formal tone and subordinates one idea to the other, while "so" is more casual in tone and maintains equal importance of the clauses.

At the ticket counter, Manny discovered he had forgotten our concert tickets, so we had to miss half the show while we went home to get them.

for is also used to join clauses in a cause and effect relationship and indicates a reason why something happens.  Thus, "for" is similar in meaning to "because," "as," or "since."  However, "because," usually suggests that the reason is the most important part of the idea:  "I got rid of my television because it was destroying my brain cells." "As" and "since" are usually used to show that the reason why something happened is not as important as the main clause, or that the reason is well-known already:  "As you have a television and I don't, how about I come to your house to watch the NBA playoffs?" "For" is usually used to indicate that the reason is an afterthought, an idea that emerges once the first idea is stated.

I hated listening to her talk, for she spoke in a high nasal voice.

She refuses to admit she hates her boss, for she dislikes conflict with anyone.

Coordination creates rhythm and balance, and improves coherence in a writer's sentences.  Compare the following paragraphs to see how coordination improves the writing:

The realities of the land and its inhabitants obviously color the fiction of any area, but there is also a literary style that thrives on exaggeration. The exaggerations of the Texan comprise a distinct body of folk material, but nowhere has exaggeration been more artfully cultivated than in contemporary fiction. (Max Apple, from his Introduction to Southwest Fiction, 1980).

Without coordination: The realities of the land obviously color the fiction of any area. The realities of the people color the fiction as well. There is also a literary style that thrives on exaggeration. The exaggerations of the Texan comprise a distinct body of folk material. Nowhere has exaggeration been more artfully cultivated than in contemporary fiction.


Coordination in a series...

Coordinating conjunctions are also used to connect items in a series.  These items can be phrases or single words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs).  In any series the items must be parallel, or coordinate (like) items.  For example,

Mark brought steak, lettuce, tomatoes, and charcoal to our bar-b-que.

To surprise her mom, Nellie washed the dishes, took out the trash, and vacuumed the living room.

Michelle liked to eat well but hated to exercise.

Coordination shows that each item in a series is of equal importance and similar structure.  Coordination also makes the writing easy to follow; having read the first one or two items in a series, a reader assumes the writer will follow the established pattern until the conclusion of the sentence. Notice how coordination makes the sentences below easy to follow:

Whether the chase involves a car, a horse, a wife, or a fortune, the quest itself often sbustitutes in Southwestern literature for the close observation of manners that is characteristic of a more settled society.

And in the following example, notice how coordination is used effectively throughout the paragraph to develop the main idea that Southwestern fiction has its own peculiar "rhythms and cadences" influenced by Spanish culture:

The story is told in repetitious rhythms and cadences that are peculiar to the area. There is a touch of the Southern in this rhythm but the Southwest is, on the whole, remarkably separate from the literary territory of the South. The South has the Civil War and slavery as its unique heritage; the Southwestern motif is distinctly Spanish. The Indian occupies the tragic center of Southwestern history and fiction, but it is the Spanish culture that marks the area with its particular regionalism. Spanish words are a part of Southwestern language; Mexican food is almost as pervasive as pizza and hamburgers. "Remember the Alamo" is still the ringing phrase of the Southwest, and school children in Texas celebrate the victory over Mexico on San Jacinto Day, but the Mexican culture has not been destroyed. . . .(Max Apple, from his Introduction to Southwest Fiction, 1980).



A subordinate clause depends upon another clause, the independent clause, to complete its meaning. For this reason, the subordinate clause is sometimes called a "dependent" clause. The subordinate clause is identifiable by the presence of a subordinating conjunction such as after, although, before, once, and whenever, although there are many more to choose from.  Each subordinating conjunction establishes a specific relationship between the clauses, often with subtle and important distinction. In addition, a subordinate clause can create movement and style in a piece of writing by directing the reader's attention ahead in anticipation of the main clause, as in the following sentence:

Once Simone finishes the final exam, she will join us at the graduation party

A subordinate clause can also direct the reader's attention backwards, as in this sentence:

I ate the Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken, extra crispy, for lunch, although my doctor recommends that I avoid fried food.

This ebb and flow movement adds variety and emphasis, helping a writer get away from repetitive and boring sentences.


Common subordinating conjunctions...

Some common subordinating conjunctions are shown below and on the next few tabs, along a description of how they are used:

because, as, since

"Because," "as" and "since," can all be used to begin a clause giving the reason for something happening.  However, subtle differences between these words should shape how you use them:

"Because" should be used when the reason is the most important part of the sentence:

I arrived late because I had a flat tire and had to call AAA to come and fix it.

"As" and "since" are used when the reason has already been established:

Since you don't like scary movies, then you probably shouldn't come with us to see Sawz.

so that

"So that" is used to indicate the effect or outcome of something:

So that she wouldn't be late for work, she set her alarm clock for 6:00 a.m., giving her an extra half hour to get ready.


Subordinating conjunctions: concession and comparison...


Concession and Comparison  
although, though, even though, as though

"Though" is the most casual of these terms used to show contrast. Use "even though" when you want to show strong surprise (the word "even" adds emphasis and is used in combination with subordinators like "when," and "if")

Even though the particular causes of global warming are not clear to me, I do understand the consequences.

"As though" is used to suggest that something is highly unlikely to happen, or should not even be considered reasonable. It is used in casual rather than formal writing:

Gabriel asked me out last night, as though I had shown any interest in him at all.


"As" is used to show similarities between things:

As sand falls through an hourglass, so fall the days of our lives.

As a thesis is the controlling idea of an essay, a topic sentence is the controlling idea of a paragraph.

while, whereas

"While"and "whereas" can both be used to show contrast, but not contradiction. For example,

I have always liked the Rolling Stones, whereas T.J. only likes their old stuff.

While white wine is good with fish and chicken, red wine is better with meat.


Though I like to go out to eat, I don't like to go to crowded restaurants.


Subordinating conjunctions: condition


even though, though, although

Each of these three subordinating conjunctions is used to indicate a contrasting condition. "Though" is the least formal of the three.  "Even though" means "despite that fact that" and is stronger than "though" and "although" in emphasizing a condition for something.

Even though I am exhausted, I have to study for my biology exam tonight.

if, even if

"Even if" points to particular conditions and means "whether or not." This subordinator is interesting in that it suggests a hypothetical situation as a condition.

Even if you were rich, I would not go out with you.

provided that, as long as

"As long as" is a slightly less formal version of "provided that." Both subordinators are used to indicate a condition for something happening:

As long as you pay your own way, you are welcome to come along.


"Unless" is used to specify a negative condition; in other words, unless at the beginning of a clause describes a condition that would prevent something from happening.  It is usually used with verbs in the present tense to discuss  a future conditional:

We will meet at the soccer field, unless it is raining.

Unless you can provide an alibi for your actions at 10:15 last night, you are under arrest.


Subordinating conjunctions: place and time


where "Where" identifies the place
wherever ...means no matter where: "Wherever we went, we could find a MacDonald's."

"After refers to an event or action that occurs after another event or action has occured. (after "a," then "b"):

After you arrive in Hawaii, be sure and call to let me know you have arrived safely.

After Angela took the ibuprofen, her head felt much better.

as soon as, as long as

"as long as" is used to emphasize a particular duration of time:

As long as you live in this house, you will abide by my rules.

"As soon as" is used to point to something that will happen upon the completion of something else:

As soon as you finish your dinner, you may have desert.


"Before" refers to an event or action that must occur before another event or action can take place. (before "a" happens, "b" must occur)

Before you leave for Hawaii, you had better stop delivery on your newspaper.

until, till

"Until" means up to the time, or until a certain event has taken place. 

You cannot watch television until you clean your room.

I didn't know who the bad guy was until the last scene of the movie.

"Till" is similar to "until," though less formal.  It is not often used in introductory clauses:

Bush said today that we will stay in Iraq till the war is won.


"Whenever," and also sometimes "if" and "when," is used to indicate a repeated occurence of something when certain conditions arise.  For example,

When I am in Berkeley, I will be sure to visit you.

Whenever I drink red wine, I get a headache.

If I need advice, I will be sure and call you.

while, as, when

"While," "as," and "when" indicate that things are happening simultaneously.

As I was printing out my notes for the meeting, my boss called to tell me the meeting was cancelled. 

"While" is used to emphasize long duration:

While you were out celebrating, I was home cleaning the house.

"As" and "when" are used to describe short events:

The phone rang as I was on my way out the door.

When you called, I was in the tub.

We also use "as" to show that one thing is the consequence of another:

As you get older, you get wiser.

We often use "just" in combination with "when" and "as" to describe events happening simultaneously, or almost simultaneously:

Just as she turned to yell at him for knocking her groceries out of her arms, he apologized profusely.

Note also that with "while" and "when," it is perfectly correct to leave out the subject and the "to be" verb form, as in the following sentences:

While walking the dog, he listens to his iPod.

Mrs. Thompson likes to knit when travelling on the train.



Coordination & subordination to organize an essay...

Coordination and subordination are also essential tools in planning an essay or research paper. Ideas that support a thesis can be said to be "subordinate" to that thesis; similarly, ideas that support the controlling idea of a paragraph are subordinate to that controlling idea.  On the other hand, ideas at the same level of detail, either the supporting points of a particular paragraph, or the supporting paragraphs taken together to support a thesis, are often "coordinate." 

Consider the ways that coordination and subordination might come into play in the following writing situations:

John is writing an analytical essay about the novel Little Women. He wants to argue that Laurie and Jo help one another reject social norms.  He has gathered several examples from the story showing how they encourage one another to reject conformity, each example illustrating a different social norm as well as how and why they dismiss it.

Kevin is writing an essay about the changes that come with leaving home to go to college.  He wants to argue that with this move, a person faces many unexpected responsibilities.  Kevin has a list of these new responsiblities he would like to explore in his essay: managing money, finding the self-motivation to study, taking care of one's body, and working out new relationships with friends.

Ellen is writing an article for the school paper to advocate a no-smoking-on-campus policy.  She has several reasons she wants to bring to her readers supporting her argument: second-hand smoke is hazardous to non-smokers, smokers set a bad example and cause others to want to smoke, cigarette smoke leaves behind a stale and unpleasant odor, and smokers litter the campus with cigarette butts.

Each of the above examples suggests a clear structure for a paragraph or essay in that each writer has ideas that are subordinate to a single controlling idea, and ideas that are coordinate to each other. When the writer is aware of the subordinate and coordinate relationships between ideas, writing the essay is easier, and the final draft will be easier for the reader to follow.  Consider Ellen's outline for her essay which grew out of her awareness of the subordinate and coordinate relationships between her ideas:

Thesis: It is time to implement a no-smoking-on-campus policy. 

    1. Second-hand smoke is hazardous to non-smokers, even outside.
    2. Smokers set a bad example, and encourage others to think about smoking
    3. Cigarette smoke pollutes our campus:
      (a) subpoint 1: cigarette smoke leaves behind an unpleasant odor
      (b) subpoint 2: cigarette butts create an ugly mess

Reasons, effects, descriptive details, comparative elements, and many more elements can be coordinate elements in sentences developing the main idea of a paragraph, or as coordinate paragraphs to develop a thesis (as in the above outline which develops the thesis through paragraphs exploring reasons).




Video Lesson

coordination & subordination video lesson


1. coordination & coordinating conjunctions

2. coordination in a series

3. subordination

4. common subordinating conjunctions

5. concession & comparison

6. condition

7. place & time

8. coordination & subordination to organize an essay

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