Home > Teaching Practice > Everything you Know about Subordination and Coordination is Wrong

Everything you Know about Subordination and Coordination is Wrong

When textbooks (and teachers) talk about the subordinating and coordinating conjunctions, they often do so in a way that inaccurately describes how English works and that confuses students. The problem stems from the way that textbooks read too deeply into the traditional names of these terms, and they muddle the crucial distinction between syntax and semantics.

Consider the way that these conjunctions are defined by two writing textbooks. Below I will summarize from Writing Worth Reading[1] and A Writer’s Reference[2]—whose definitions typify the genre. These textbooks list the conjunctions that belong to each category. The coordinating conjunctions include:

  • and
  • but
  • or
  • etc.

While the subordinating conjunctions include words like:

  • after
  • because
  • when
  • since
  • etc.

In addition to listing the members of each category, these textbooks define these conjunctions in terms of their rhetorical and semantic properties. Coordinating conjunctions are said to join two elements of equal “weight” or “importance,” while subordinating conjunctions join elements where one is more important or demands heavier emphasis, with the less important or less emphatic element following the subordinating conjunction. The discussion then jumps to giving students rhetorical advice on how to combine sentences and clauses using both types of conjunctions, in order to embellish the relative levels of “weight” or “importance” of the items being conjoined.

Before we continue, let’s consider what decades of linguistic research into the structure of English tells us about coordination and subordination. In most theories, a coordinating conjunction is said to conjoin two (or more) grammatical constituents at the same syntactic level. Usually the conjoined elements are words/phrases that are syntactically like. Any place where you can put a phrase of syntactic type X, you can place two conjoined phrases of type X.

With subordinating conjunctions, the conjunction joins just two clauses/phrases, and the subordinating conjunction puts the two on separate syntactic levels. Usually, the constituent that begins with the subordinating conjunction is said to adjoin to the edge of the independent clause.

Linguists have shown that subordination and coordination differ in a number of other ways, but I’ve covered some of the most crucial. Crucially, linguists do not assume that the names “coordination” and “subordination” have any special significance. Nor do they assume that the syntax of a coordinated or subordinated construction automatically influences the semantics. The relation is syntactic, though individual conjunctions of course differ in meanings.

The textbooks, however, read much deeper into the names that happen to be traditionally applied to these two types of conjunctions. At the same time, they take a generalization about the syntax of two types of conjunctions and assume that a property of the syntax somehow affects the meaning and rhetorical structure of the sentence. Below I will show that why their claim is empirically inaccurate:

The authors of Writing Worth Reading give the following example sentences to illustrate how main ideas should appear in the main clause and less important ideas should appear in the subordinate clause:

1. When I finally left the casino, I had lost my last dollar.

2. After I lost my last dollar, I left the casino (260).[3]

As I interpret these sentences, it does indeed seem like the ideas in the main clauses are being emphasized, but because of a different reason.

It has nothing to do with the syntactic relation of subordination or coordination, and everything to do with the linear order of the two clauses relative to one another. As Joseph Williams points out (in a discussion that has nothing to do with conjunctions), a heavier prosodic stress falls near the ends of sentences, which has a way of subtly emphasizing the endings.[4] We could think of this as the default prosody, all else being equal. Speakers tend to provide information that is new to the discourse at the ends, after familiar information.[5] Therefore, the novelty and unexpectedness of this information can impact the reader, often catching them off guard. And finally, information presented just before some sort of ending point (period, paragraph ending, etc.) will hit harder to the extent that it is the information that the reader is left dwelling on. Note that the prior patterns describe strong tendencies, rather than hard rules. This means that it is not always a reliable property of endings to be more emphatic or important. It does mean, however, that skilled writers can exploit this tendency—which we can think of as a default way of interpreting a sentence—for rhetorical purposes.

We can easily perform a test to prove that the relevant variable is what’s at the ending, rather than what is or isn’t in a subordinate clause. All we have to do is flip the order of the two clauses in #1 and #2 and read them again:

3. I had lost my last dollar, when I finally left the ca-SIN-o.

4. I left the casino, after I lost my last DOL-lar.[6]

As I read these two sentences, the more emphatic part is what comes at the end, rather than what’s in the main clause. Furthermore, this pattern has nothing to do with subordinating conjunctions. It manifests just the same when the two clauses are conjoined with “and.” To illustrate this, I have slightly reworded #3 and #4 to say essentially the same thing, but I have inserted “and” in place of the subordinating conjunction:

5. I had lost my last dollar, and I finally left the ca-SIN-o then.

6. I left the casino, and I had just lost my last DOL-lar.

As I read #5 and #6, the more emphatic part still comes at the end. And we can flip the order around but still leave out the subordinating conjunction:

7. I finally left the casino, and I had just lost my last DOL-lar.

8. I left the casino, and I lost my last DOL-lar.

Again, the more emphatic part comes at the end of both #7 and #8. The effect is subtle, but if people agree with my intuitions, then it strongly suggests that the linguistic distinction between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions is independent of any notion of relative “importance.”

Though I focus in this posting on subordination and coordination, I’m making a point that’s much more general: in textbooks and writing classes, many definitions of grammatical terminology are shaped more by tradition than by what contemporary linguistic research has discovered about how English works. As such, it’s no surprise when students zone out in the face of grammar instruction and come to see it as an illogical activity that depends more on the teacher’s authority than the reality of the language that they live and breath. And it will remain that way until our teaching of grammar becomes more informed by linguistic research.

Here’s an immodest question: do students even need to be taught about the distinction between coordination and subordination?

In some classrooms, it makes sense; in others, it doesn’t. It depends on the larger goals of your pedagogy.

Often, subordination and coordination are taught as part of a sentence-combining pedagogy, where they represent two of the options students can use to join short sentences together and effect a more sophisticated writing style.

In such pedagogy, students can often get by without being explicitly taught the needless complication of the subordination/coordination distinction. When I teach my students sentence-combining, for instance, I minimize focus on the coordination/subordination distinction (which is tough, given that every textbook finds it so important to dwell on). I present students with a representative list of conjunctions (both types), and encourage them to use a variety. In particular, I encourage students to select the conjunction that most precisely expresses the meaning relation between the clauses being joined. This pushes students beyond the kind of monotonous writing where sentences are lamely combined with “and” or “but,” if at all. As a natural consequence, students will be using both coordination and subordination, which adds syntactic variety to their writing.

Students might need to be taught the coordination/subordination distinction for a separate reason—fixing punctuation errors. Coordinating conjunctions and subordinating pattern differently in terms of comma usage, and if students have trouble with these punctuation patterns, they might benefit from being explicitly taught which conjunctions pattern which way.  But crucially, I teach this distinction as one that focuses on word order and comma usage rather than on semantics, and I caution students against reading too much into the names “subordination” and “coordination.”

How do you deal with the issues of subordination and coordination in your teaching? Send me a message. I’d like to hear what other teachers do.

[1] p. 256 – 261 & 489

[2] p. 116 – 120

[3] In each example, I have underlined the main clause, which the authors claim is more important.

[4] p. 122 – 124. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed.

[6] In each example, I have marked the heaviest prosodic stress in the entire sentence with capitals.

  1. May 7, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    A thorough discussion of subordination and coordination. I am torn on teaching the two concepts. On one hand, I just want my high school students to get more comfortable and confident with writing. I don’t think they need to know the details of the mechanics. (Just as they don’t need to know engine mechanics to be able to drive safely.). And, finally, the more details they are given, the bigger “the dip” before they experience mastery. On the other hand, the more they know, the more they know. And the better, eventually, their writing will be.

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