What is a Subordinating Conjunction?

Parts Of Speech

Mother and ChildLet me start by saying that I think the name Subordinating Conjunction is wrong. It doesn’t really describe what they do.

When we use one of these so-called subordinating conjunctions we’re not saying they make a phrase subordinate to another; we’re saying they make a phrase need another. A bit like a child; it’s not subordinate to the parent, it just needs the parent.

I wonder if we should call them Needy Conjunctions?

Anyway, here I’ll explain what subordinating conjunctions are all about and how we use them and how the name isn’t very good.

Two Equal Clauses

Here are two sentences:

The band played loudly,

The mayor talked to the crowd.

Both of these are grammatically fine.

If we want to combine them into a single sentence we can use a simple conjunction:

{clause} + {conjunction} + {clause}

The mayor talked to the crowd and the band played loudly.

If we use a conjunction like and it simply joins them and both are equal. Neither of the sentences (or rather clauses as they have become) is any more important than the other.

Two Unequal Clauses

However, when we use a subordinating conjunction, we are saying that one of the clauses is not equal to the other one.

In fact, we are saying that the clause with the conjunction depends on the other clause; it needs the other clause to make sense.

{conjunction} + {clause} = a needy clause; a clause which depends on another clause

While + the mayor talked to the crowd…

Because + the band played loudly…

After + the band played loudly…

Whenever + the mayor talked to the crowd…

As you can see, if we have a subordinating conjunction in front of a clause it can’t stand on its own and you need another clause for the sentence to make sense. We can’t say:

* While you were out.

* If you eat too much.

* Until the cat comes in.

* an asterisk at the beginning means it’s ungrammatical

For these to make sense we need more; we need another clause:

While you were out the neighbor called round.

If you eat too much you’re going to be sick.

I won’t be able to sleep until the cat comes in,

You can see then how a clause with a subordinating conjunction is needy. It needs another clause to be whole.

And that’s why they should be called Needy Conjunctions in my book!


When we write it, if the the subordinate clause comes before the main clause, a comma is required.

Unless your mother helps us with the children, I will have to quit my job.

I will have to quit my job unless your mother helps us with the children.

A List of Subordinating Conjunctions

Here is a list of common subordinating conjunctions. Mostly they are single words but sometimes they can be phrases.

By the way, they are also sometimes known as dependent words or subordinators. (Which isn’t as good as needy in my opinion!)

Some refer to time:

after, before, once, since, until, when, while

Some refer to cause and effect:

as, because, in order that, now that, since, so, so that, whenever

Some refer to opposition:

although, even though, rather than, though, whereas, while

Some refer to condition:

if, even if, only if, in case (that), provided that, unless, whether or not

Note that these groups are fairly loose and overlapping.

Useful Links

Conjunctions‏‎ In English Grammar – looking at conjunctions in general

Clauses‏‎ in English Grammar – a general look at clauses

Image © Tanel Teemusk

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