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Concourse 2

Clausal coordination


It would be useful if you have followed the general guide in this area which distinguishes between coordination and subordination.  Other relevant guides can be tracked via the index to syntax: clauses, phrases and sentences.  Those links open in new tabs.


The core coordinators: and, or, but

Traditionally, the central coordinators in English are identified as and, or and but.  To that list, some would add for (in its meaning of because), yet, nor, so and so that.  All other conjunctions then fall into the class of correlators or subordinators.  However, there are differences hidden in this simplicity which are important.

It is a simple enough matter to place the conjunctions and and or firmly in the camp of coordinators proper for a number of reasons revealed by the structure of the sentences in which they occur.
There are five tests to apply to a conjunction to distinguish coordination from subordination.
Here they are:


Coordinators can join two subordinate clause as well as two main clauses

We can have:
    John came home and cooked a meal
with two main clauses, the subject ellipted from the second, and
    Because John was so tired when he came home, he decided not to cook and went straight to bed and fell fast asleep immediately
with a main clause and three subordinate clauses connected with and
We can also have:
    He'll arrive late or he'll be very early
with two main clauses in which it is optional to ellipt the verb phrase (He'll arrive late or very early))
    If the train times are awkward, John will arrive late or he'll be very early or, of course, he won't come at all
with a main clause and three subordinate clauses joined by or)
In theory, at least, there is no limit to the number of subordinate clauses which can be joined like this.

The conjunction but can link subordinate clauses but a maximum of two clauses is allowable.  So we can allow:
    Mary said that she would come to the dinner but could be late
but not:
    *Mary said that she would come to the dinner but could be late but would try to be on time.
Subordinating conjunctions can't do this at all:
    *John was tired because it was late because he had been working
must be rephrased:
    John was tired because it was late and because he had been working


The clause which begins with the coordinator is fixed in position

We can have:
    John came home and he cooked a meal
    I'll take the train or John can give me a lift

but not
    *And he cooked a meal John came home
    *Or John can give me a lift I'll take the train
    *But you were out I called by
    *For she would be angry I said nothing
    *So that I could see the footsteps it had snowed
    *Nor I didn't want to come stay at home
    *Yet she was generous she didn't have much money
This is not true for subordinating conjunctions:
    Although he was tired he gave me a lift home
    He gave me a lift home although he was tired
where the reversal of the clauses results in no loss of meaning, although the emphasis is slightly different.


Coordinating conjunctions cannot be preceded by another conjunction

It is not possible to have:
    *John gave me a lift but and he was tired
    *She phoned and but I was out
    *I said nothing so for I knew she would be angry
and so on.
This is not true for subordinating conjunctions so we allow:
    John gave me a lift although he was tired and although it was late
    He gave me a lift because it was late or because he took pity on me


We can leave out the subject in the second clause if it refers to the same entity

It is possible to have:
    John came home and cooked a meal
    John went on holiday or took a break at home
ellipting the subject the second time in both examples.
This is not true for subordinating conjunctions:
    *He took the train because the weather was cold and because was wet.


Coordinators can link multiple main clauses and we can omit the conjunction altogether until the end

We can have:
    I'll take the train, I'll catch a bus, I'll hitchhike or I'll drive.
    He came home, fed the cat, cooked a meal, ate it in front of the television and went to bed
This is not true for subordinating conjunctions:
    *He gave me the money, he had been to the bank, I needed it then because I asked him.

Of the core coordinators, the conjunction but is slightly anomalous.  It satisfies 3 of the 5 tests above but not numbers 1 (partially) and 5 because:


The 5 (pseudo-) coordinators: for, so that, so, yet, nor

That's all OK for the three core coordinators and, or, but.  What about the other four?

The conjunction for to mean because is now quite rare except in formal and academic writing.  In this sense, it shares some of the characteristics of the three core coordinators.
  • It can't link two subordinate clauses (so does not pass Test 1):
        *Before he spoke to her he decided not to tell her for she would be angry
  • The conjunction is fixed in place between the two clauses (so it passes Test 2) and we do not allow:
        *For she would be angry he didn't tell her
  • It cannot be preceded by another conjunction (so passes Test 3) and we do not allow:
        *He was late and for his car had broken down
  • We can't leave out the subject in the second clause (so does not pass Test 4):
    We can have:
        I didn't tell her for I knew she would be angry
    but not:
        *I didn't tell her for knew she would be angry
  • It can't be left out in a string of clauses (so does not pass Test 5) and we do not allow:
        *He got up early, ran to the station, caught the first train for he wanted to be in good time
The conjunction has two distinct meanings and there are two other issues:
  1. Resultative meaning:
    Here so that mean much the same as the subordinator so, with which it is often replaced, and refers to a result of an event or state but it is less common.  It is a coordinator only in this sense.
        The garden was covered in snow so that he could see the footprints clearly.
    When used in this way, it shares the characteristics set out above for the conjunction for.
    It cannot be preceded by another conjunction (so passes Test 3) and we do not allow:
        *The garden was covered in snow and so that he could see the footprints clearly.
    The clause it is part of cannot be moved so we do not allow:
        *So that the garden was covered in snow he could see the footprints clearly.
    In sum, the phrase passes tests 2 and 3 but fails tests 1, 4 and 5.
    In this resultative meaning, the conjunction is often replaceable with the simpler so.  But, because so is a subordinator, it can be preceded by another conjunction so we allow, e.g.:
        The garden was covered in snow and so he was able to see the footprints clearly
  2. Purposive meaning
    Here it means much the same as in order that and this is the more common use.  It is a subordinator in this sense, not a coordinator, and is treated as such in the guide to subordination, linked below
        He arrived early so that he could prepare for the meeting.
        So that he could prepare for the meeting, he arrived early.
    The ability to swap the clauses around with the conjunction moving with the subordinate clause (Test 2) is a sure sign that it is a subordinator in this sense.  Another sign is that we cannot ellipt the subject in the second clause (Test 4) and we cannot allow:
        *So that he could prepare for the meeting, arrived early..
    In this meaning, the conjunction is replaceable by the simpler so.
  3. Ambiguity of meaning
    It is possible that some ambiguity may arise.  For example, does:
        Someone stole my car so that I couldn't get to work
    mean that someone stole the car in order to prevent me getting to work (subordinating) or is the result of the theft the fact that I couldn't get to work (coordinating)?
  4. Non-conjunction use
    The phrase so ... that can also be a modifier of an adjective or adverb when it means to the extent that as in, e.g.:
        The flight was so late that I missed my connection
    and in neither of these cases is the use of so or so ... that conjunctional.  What is happening is that so is modifying the adverb or adjective and that is followed by a that-clause complement.
    The word ordering matters because if the word so and that are separated or form a single conjunction, the meaning is radically different.
also pass two of the tests for coordinators but not others.
  • They cannot join two subordinated clauses (so they do not pass Test 1) and we do not allow:
        *He was tired yet he worked on yet the work wasn't easy
        *She didn't want to go out nor have guests round nor watch a movie
  • The clauses they connect are in a fixed sequence (so they pass Test 2):
    We can have
        He tried hard yet he failed
        I don't want to see it nor do I want to read about it

    but not
        *Yet he tried hard he failed
        *Nor do I want to see it I do not want to read about it
  • Both these conjunctions may appear with other conjunctions (so they do not pass Test 3) and we allow:
        She is poor and yet she spends money on luxuries
        They didn't like the food and nor did I
  • We can leave out the subject of the second clause providing it is the same as the first, although we frequently do not (so they pass Test 4):
        He was angry yet didn't show it
        He didn't want to see nor want to talk to her
  • They can't be left out in a string of clauses (so the do not pass Test 5):
        *They started late, were delayed again yet arrived in time
        *She didn't want to change the venue, delay the meeting nor cancel it
Nor is particularly difficult for learners because it requires the use of a question-form word ordering (or inversion) so we have:
    He didn't pay attention nor did he look interested
and not:
    *He didn't pay attention nor he looked interested

The conjunction so is generally a subordinator and does not appear in this list but it does have some coordinating characteristics because it can perform the same resultative function as so that.  Here are the issues in brief:

The diagram from the general guide to subordination and coordination sums up the position.  We have included but in the list of core coordinators because it passes nearly all the tests with one odd exception (Test 5).

sums up
We can also represent the relationship like this:

Here is a grid showing the characteristics of the conjunctions which are considered coordinators of one kind or another.  From that, you can see that only and and or pass all five tests but all seven coordinators pass test 2.



  1. The conjunction for in this grid means because.
  2. The conjunction but may only link a maximum of two subordinate clauses (see above).
  3. The conjunction so that is a coordinator when it refers to result (as here) but when it refers to purpose, it is a subordinator (meaning so) and fails all the tests.


Coordination with and

This may seem rather simple, and it often is but there are some elements of coordination with and that exist in English and do not in other languages.
The other issue is the ordering of the clauses.  It is sometimes said that clauses connected with and can usually be reversed with no change in meaning.  For example:
    It is raining and it is cold
can be stated as
    It is cold and it is raining
In fact, reversing the clauses more often than not creates nonsense as we shall see.

It is unusual for two clauses to be connected with and if they do not have something obvious in common.  Compare, for example,
    She is very rich, lives in a large house and drives an expensive car
    She is very rich, lives in a large house and doesn't understand thermodynamics
When the clauses do not exhibit commonalities, English prefers the use of a quasi-coordinator like as well as so we might allow:
    ?She is very rich and lives in a large house as well as not understanding thermodynamics
If one action is seen as a consequence of another, and is often the coordinator of choice, especially in spoken English (but it is not in other languages, many of which would reserve a causal conjunction for this role).  For example, in:
    He saw the accident and called the ambulance
the clauses cannot be reversed without making nonsense because the sense of the coordinator is resultative and causes come logically before results.
Again, in English, and is often the coordinator of choice when two events are seen to be chronologically connected.  For example:
    John came home and cooked a meal
Reversing the clauses creates something surprising if not incomprehensible.
Again, many languages would prefer a subordinating time conjunction for this concept and even in English, many prefer to insert the temporal adverb then after and.
English speakers will often select and when what follows is seen as a comment on the previous clause.  For example,
    She was furious and I don't blame her
Reversing the clauses creates nonsense.
This can be rephrased using a disjunct such as:
    She was furious.  Rightly so, in my view.
Some languages simply won't do this and will use always a disjunct to express, e.g.:
    She was furious and understandably so.
    She was furious.  Clearly, there was a good reason.
Especially in spoken English, native speakers will often select and in preference to the traditionally taught if-clause.  For example,
    Give me a lift and I'll buy you a drink later
Reversing the clauses creates nonsense.
We often insert then into these sentences after and to create the sense of conditionality.  For example:
    Let's leave now and then we can catch an earlier train
The first clause in such sentences is almost always an imperative or contains a modal auxiliary verb and the second clause contains a modal auxiliary verb as in, e.g.:
    We must go quietly and then we won't wake him up
    Let's leave now and then we can take the early train
Again, in many languages some kind of conditional marker (conjunction or mood such as the subjunctive) would be preferred.
It is noteworthy that when the coordinator and is used in this way it actually becomes a subordinating conjunction (because conditional forms in English are subordinating forms).
Syndetic and Asyndetic coordination
The first of these horrible terms means the inclusion of the coordinator as in, for example:
    Hot and exhausted, he gave up
Asyndetic coordination omits the conjunction and would be:
    Hot, exhausted, he gave up.
This effect also occurs with clauses as in, e.g.:
    Come over here, sit down, tell me all about it.


Coordination with or

This is again often considered a simple area but languages work slightly differently and what is allowable in English may not be in other languages.

Again, it is often averred that reversing the clauses makes no difference to the sense.  Sometimes, doing so loses little but it should be noted that English speakers will often elect to put the preferred option first.  In some cases, nonsense is created by reversing the clauses.

This is even more important in this case because if the two clauses are not connected, the sense is lost.  For example:
    I can fly or I can take the train
is acceptable, but
    *I can fly or Rome is 400 kilometres away
is not.
In English, or is exclusive.  That means that it connects two mutually incompatible ideas.  This is not the case in some languages.  For example:
    You can walk or I can take you in the car
clearly implies that both possibilities are not allowable at the same time.
When both possibilities are allowable, English speakers will often make that explicit.  For example,
    You can have the strawberry or the chocolate, or both, of course.
As we saw above with and, the conjunction is often also preferred to a traditional if-clause.  The conjunction or can work similarly but has a negative sense and does not always carry the same imperative force.  For example:
    They obviously didn't enjoy the play or they wouldn't have left early
instead of the more complex:
    They wouldn't have left early if they had been enjoying the play
The conjunction can also work in conditional threats such as:
    Pay me the money or I'll take you to court
instead of the conditional:
    If you don't pay me the money, I'll take you to court
In both these cases, reversing the clauses connected with or creates nonsense (because it is a coordinator) but reversing the clauses connected with if is acceptable (because it is a subordinator).


Coordination with but

The coordinator but is often treated simple as a way of stating a contrast.  It often is but there's slightly more to it.  It can, of course be used discoursally to interrupt and present an alternative viewpoint (the Yes, but ... event).
It is, however, used in two different ways:

This is the familiar one exemplified in, for example:
    I came to see you but you were out
contrasting hope with reality
    I wanted to finish but the work took longer than I thought
contrasting plan with reality
    It may seem that way but it's actually quite simple
contrasting appearance with reality
and so on.
The clauses can very rarely be sensibly reversed because the contrast is usually expressed in the second clause.
The conjunction can also be a restatement and confirmation of what has come before, implying no real contrast.  For example:
    He didn't rush into to it but gave the move a good deal of thought
    We mustn't assume he'll be late but work on that principle



We saw above that the subject (providing it is the same subject) can be omitted when clauses are joined by some coordinators so we can:

Omit the subject with and, or, nor, so, yet and but:
    John came home and cooked a meal
    She always arrived late or didn't arrive at all
    She hardly spoke (n)or listened
    He had enough money so stayed in a hotel
    He did very little work yet passed the examination
    She attended the meeting but said little
But we can't do this with for and so that:
    *He was very tall so that could see over my head
    *He told her a lie for knew the truth would hurt
(The third example in this list is somewhat controversial.  An American user of the site (to whom gratitude is expressed) has has noted that AmE speakers do not use nor in combination with the negator hardly, preferring or in this sentence.  However, the adverb hardly is generally perceived as strongly negative by many speakers of BrE so the use of the negative coordinator is acceptable (if often disparaged).)
Omit the auxiliary verb(s) if it applies to both main verbs
    She can come and tell us how to do it
    He has had his house painted and his car repaired

    She has welcomed the children but been rude to their parents
But we can't do this with for and so that:
    *He can stand on that box so that see over my head
    *He could dive well as a child for hold his breath for four minutes
Omit the subject and the verb phrase when clauses are coordinated with and, but or or, only if the sentence contains an auxiliary and the mood, tense or aspect is unchanged:
    She can play the piano and the flute
    She can come or go
    It's hot here in July but wet in February
    Peter went to the market and Mary to the pub

We cannot do this with the other conjunctions.
This is often the way in which writers and speakers can create what is called a zeugma when the verb senses do not match.  For example:
    She paid the bill but very little attention
which would normally be considered a joke of some sort.  For more, see the guide to polysemy and homonymy (new tab).
Omit the whole of the predicate
    The boss will come to the party and his wife might
    She can cook beautifully but her husband can't
forward and back

Forward and back: pronoun reference

Ellipsis is normally anaphoric in these cases and the examples above because the first clause has contained the recoverable data so reference back to them can be made.  For example, in:
    The children came in and sat at the table
it is a simple matter to refer back to the first clause to identify the fact that the children is the subject of sat in the second clause.
Sometimes, complex ellipsis allows us to leave out a section of the clause cataphorically and we must refer forward in the sentence to recover the data as in, for example:
    She can or should do the work
Here, the reader / listener has to refer forward in the sentence to discover the main verb (do).
    They ordered, ate and paid for the food.
In this case, the reader / listener has to refer forward to discover the object of ordered and ate.

We saw above that we can omit the subject in some coordinated clauses so we get, for example:
    Mary was exhausted but worked on till six
in which it is clear that Mary is the subject of both clauses.
We cannot do this with subordination so we do not allow:
    *Although Mary was very tired, worked on till six

However, coordinated clauses only allow anaphoric referencing of pronouns (i.e., with reference to a previous noun).
Therefore, while we allow:
    Mary was unhappy and she argued (reference ←)
    John arrived late but he didn't miss the speeches (reference ←)
we do not allow:
    She argued and Mary was unhappy
unless she and Mary refer to different people, or
    He didn't miss the speeches but John arrived late
unless he and John refer to different people.

There is, however, a little more to it than that because in a sentence such as:
    He was exhausted but John worked on till six
it is averred by some that he and John must refer to different people.  In other words, he cannot be a cataphoric reference to John in a coordinated sentence.  This is somewhat questionable and the sentence is at best ambiguous insofar as he and John could refer to the same person or to different people depending on context and co-text.
With subordination, on the other hand, cataphoric reference is assumed so in
    Although he was exhausted, John worked on till six
it is inevitable that he and John will be assumed to be the same person.


Quasi-coordinator prepositions

These are complex prepositions which often coordinate items and they include, e.g., the ones highlighted in these examples:

I fixed the car as well as the lawnmower
He came to the party along with most of his friends from university
She likes you more than I do
He complains as much as his wife
The manager came to my retirement party accompanied by most of the board

They can all be replaced with coordinators proper so we could equally have:

I fixed the car and the lawnmower
He came to the party and so did most of his friends from university
She likes you but I like you less
He complains and so does his wife
The manager and most of the board came to my retirement party

but some sense is lost.

Grammatically, the terms function in a way closer to prepositions than conjunctions because they are not all susceptible to being followed by clauses so we cannot have:
    *I fixed the car as well as I painted the garage
    *He came to the party along with his friends did too
    *He came accompanied by his mother came

but the terms as much as and more than can join clauses as we see above and in:
    She helps as much as he hinders
    They like Chinese food more than they like Indian food.

The suspicion is that these are called quasi-coordinating prepositions simply because it is difficult to consign them unequivocally to one class or another.  Dictionary compilers have to call them something.

There are some issues with verb and pronoun concord with these expressions.  See the guide to concord, linked below, for more.


Adverb relative clause coordination

Unlike relative pronoun clauses, which are subordinating, adverb relative clauses also act as grammatical and semantic coordinators so, for example, in:
    Those were the shoes which they were wearing when they got married
we have both sorts of relative clause:

  1. The pronoun relative clause:
        which they were wearing
  2. The adverb relative clause:
        when they got married

We cannot remove the pronoun relative clause (because its function is subordination) so:
    Those were the shoes.  They were wearing when they got married
is malformed.  However, removing the adverb relative clause is permissible and leaves a well-formed pair of clauses:
    Those were the shoes which they were wearing.  They got married
although some sense is lost, of course.

Adverb relative clauses can, therefore, perform a coordinating function as in:
    It was at that time when he realised the truth
    This is the house where he lived much of his life
    Those were the three reasons why he was so angry
    I did the work how I was instructed



Teaching implications

Coordination is often seen as simple, almost too simple to be taught.  It is not.


Coordination in other languages

The ways in which languages deal with coordination are quite variable (although they all do it, of course) so the area needs some careful handling and concept checking.  Here are a few examples:

and so on.  Languages differ quite dramatically in this area and it is perilous to assume that coordination will be understood and produced with any ease.


Selecting what to teach

It is clearly arguable that the core coordinators, and, but and or should be the focus of teaching at any level.  To that list, most people would add the common subordinator so.
Not all the uses can be tackled at once, of course, and some of them are probably better left until more advanced levels.  These include:

There are, however, four main ideas which should be tackled at lower levels:

  1. The need for a commonality between the clauses
  2. The implication of chronological ordering with and (so no reversal of clause ordering)
  3. The idea of and used to express a consequence (so no reversal of clause ordering)
  4. The fact that coordinators must occur between ideas and are not integral to either clause in the way that subordinators are

If we don't focus on these four fundamental ideas, we may encourage errors even though the conjunctions work very similarly across a range of languages.

This leaves the four other coordinators: for, so that, yet and nor.  None of these is particularly common.


Teaching solutions

The solution, as usual, is to ensure two things:

  1. Providing context so that the speaker's meaning is transparent and it is clear e.g.:
    1. whether but is being used to contrast two ideas as in
          I waited for hours but nobody arrived
      or to confirm and support the first idea as in
          He didn't work at all but just lay around watching TV
    2. whether and is being used to join or to perform another function such as suggesting consequence, chronological ordering or conditionality.  For example, in
          He's a student and doesn't have much money
      is a simple logical connector but in:
          Tell him that and he'll get really angry with you
      it is expressing conditionality [If you tell him that he'll be really angry with you]
      but in:
          I heard the bang and went to see what had happened
      the coordinator shows the chronological ordering of events [After I heard the bang I went to see what had happened]
      but in:
          The vase broke and spilled water all over my desk
      the coordinator expresses consequence [Water was spilled all over my desk because the vase broke]
      These uses will affect whether the clauses can safely be reversed.
    3. whether so that and so are being used synonymously or whether the use of so that is coordinating (a resultative) rather than subordinating (a purposive use) in
          The fog was thick so that I couldn't see him clearly (resultative)
          I opened the window so that I could see him clearly (purposive)
      because this will affect whether the clauses can be shifted around.
  2. Providing co-text so that it is clear what can be ellipted, what must stay, what can be included and what can be moved to avoid errors such as
    1. *We ate early for knew the restaurant closed at 7
    2. *So I could take a holiday, saved money carefully
    3. *They drove because the buses are unreliable and but the car broke down

Some comparative work translating in and out of first languages can be productive in this area and raise the learners' awareness of what is and is not possible in English.  To do that successfully, of course you'll have to know or at least know about your learners' first language(s).

Comparisons, too, between acceptable and unsuccessful sentences in English can help learners see how the forms work and be productive.  For example:

Mark the sentences right or wrong and then see if you can say why
Sentence right Why is it wrong?
Help me with this and I'll buy you a drink    
I'll buy you a drink and help me with this  
He telephoned the police and he saw the damage    
He saw the damage and telephoned the police  
He didn't have a holiday but worked to save money for next year    
He had a holiday but worked to save money for next year  
I can get her a present or take her to dinner    
I can get her a present or it is her birthday  

There is also a need to be alert to your learners' production and, instead of just noting that there is some kind of syntactical error, consider whether it is caused by false coordination and treat it accordingly.
Often, there is a temptation to fall back on the because-it's-not-English explanation rather than look for a deeper cause.
That cause is often found to be a lack of understanding of coordination.



The central coordinators and and but are usually reduced in connected speech, especially when it is quite rapid and learners need to be alerted to the fact so that they can both identify coordinated clauses and be able to produce natural-sounding sentences.
Additionally, the usual issues around rhythm and stress in longer sentences need to be addressed.

Try a brief quiz on some of this.

Related guides
the word-class map for links to guides to the other major word classes
subordination for a similar guide to a related area
conjunctions for a general guide to the word class
concord for a consideration of coordination and concord
clauses, phrases and sentences the index for this section with links to guides tackling many of the concepts in this one
coordination lesson a lesson for higher-level learners
coordination exercise an exercise on coordination for learners (and you)

Othman, W, 2004, Subordination and Coordination in English-Arabic Translation, Al-Basaer, Vol. 8 – No. 2, 2004, pp.12 - 33 available from http://www.translationdirectory.com/article899.htm
Polinsky, K and M, n. d., What does coordination look like in a head-final language?, University of California, San Diego available from http://people.iq.harvard.edu/~nkwon/Papers/Asymmetry_Kwon_Polinsky.pdf
For Spanish: http://www.spanishbooster.com/SpanishConjunctions.htm