What are conjunctions and how do they function?
This is the first of three chapters about Conjunctions. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Learn about the basic concepts of word types and conjunctions
– Explore the functions of conjunctions in English
– Be introduced to the five types of conjunction and one type of conjunctive adverb
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For any student who wishes to become proficient in advanced English, at some stage in their education they will have to study word types and their various forms and functions. While most students will already be aware of verbs, nouns and adjectives and can identify these with ease, the conjunction is a less commonly understood word type. Conjunctions are however no less important. In this short three-chapter reader, we therefore discuss how this word type functions (Chapter 1), we explore the five categories of English conjunction and how to use them (Chapter 2), and we highlight the benefits of accurate conjunction use in academic settings such as essays (Chapter 3).
What are the most common conjunctions?
To see conjunctions in action, let’s take a look at the first paragraph of our reading text on the Future of Lithium. The conjunctions have been bolded and underlined:
In the twenty-first century, the attention of scientists, manufacturers and the media has been increasingly focused towards one resource in particular: lithium. Since its discovery in the nineteenth century, lithium has had several significant technological uses, from weapons to medicine and most recently for the use of rechargeable batteries. As the demand for electric cars now threatens the oil industry and will potentially shift humanity’s needs away from fossil fuels, the use of lithium in rechargeable batteries is predicted to have a significant impact on current economic and social models. The following article first follows the discovery, developments and demands of this resource before also considering the impacts and implications this so-called ‘white gold’ is having on the world’s environment.
At 120 words long and with nine conjunctions, we can see from this excerpt that conjunctions are very common in English, appearing roughly every thirteen words. We can also see that the word ‘and’ accounts for six out of nine conjunctions in this example, making it by far the most common example. The conjunctions ‘since’, ‘as’ and ‘before’ are, in fact, only used once in this sample paragraph.
What are the functions of conjunctions?
Now take another look at that sample paragraph and reflect on what you notice about this word type. How are the words ‘as’, ‘and’, ‘since’ and ‘before’ functioning on a grammatical level, for example? What can they do that other word types such as nouns and verbs can’t? Do they carry specific meanings, and if so what are they?
Hopefully, after a little reflection, you’re able to see that conjunctions have one grammatical (structural) function in English, which is to join together words, phrases and clauses. But could you also see how conjunctions have a semantic (meaning-based) function too, that they identify relationships between elements? By looking at the two examples below, we can see in action how the conjunctions ‘and’ and ‘or’ are not only able to join words together, but also how they can show equality between those words (and) and present choices or alternatives (or):
In addition to single words, note how conjunctions may also join phrases:
While the joining of words and phrases is useful, the most common function of a conjunction is to combine clauses. If we recall that a clause is a grammatical element that contains (at a minimum) a subject and a verb, and that a sentence may comprise one or many clauses, we can see in the following examples how the conjunctions ‘because’ and ‘although’ combine clauses into sentences, indicating relationships of causality and comparison:
Can conjunctions be other word types too?
Students should be careful when identifying conjunctions that they focus on both the grammatical and semantic functions of this word type. This is because some words in English are able to change word type depending on the expression, such as how ‘after’ and ‘so’ may be prepositions and adverbs as well as conjunctions below:
How many types of conjunction exist?
Precisely how many categories of conjunction exist in English is somewhat debateable. We’ve included five types below, including a sixth bonus type – an adverb that functions conjunctively (the conjunctive adverb). However, if you look at the five categories in the table carefully, you’ll see that both temporal conjunctions and complementisers are in fact types of subordinating conjunction. While we’ve separated them throughout this short reader due to their unique functions, you may see these categories being analysed differently elsewhere (as grammar is theory!):
For more information about these six conjunction types, including lots of helpful examples, continue reading with Chapter 2. And don’t forget to unlock, download and complete our Chapter 1 Worksheet to check your comprehension and progress so far.
Chapter 2 explores the topic: What are the five types of conjunction in English? Our Chapter 2 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button.
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