Some writers don’t join their ideas. Each idea ends up in its own sentence. The writer doesn’t use coordinators. The writer doesn’t use subordinators. The writer doesn’t make transitions. This makes the sentences seem “choppy.” The connections between ideas are sometimes unclear to the reader.
In this post, I’m going to focus on subordinating conjunctions, a set of handy words used to join sentences together and simultaneously show how ideas relate to one another. They, like coordinating conjunctions, are some of the basic joining elements in our toolkits as writers. I’ll talk more about transition words and phrases in a later post, but using the table below, you can get a sense of the types of logical relationships you can indicate with the coordinating conjunctions and some of the most common subordinating conjunctions and transition words:
Coordinating versus Subordinating Conjunctions
Subordinators are useful because they express a different set of logical relationships than coordinating conjunctions — and even when you can choose from either a subordinator or a coordinator, these different choices create different effects.
As a writer, I think of coordinating conjunctions as the most subtle joining words. They smooth out potential potholes on the road to meaning, but, like an asphalt patch filling up what once was an axle-rattling pothole on the freeway, the reader can cruise right over them without paying much conscious attention. They’re more noticeable when they’re missing than when they’re there.
I think of subordinators as being more like highway signs. Most of the time, readers absorb them without thinking too hard, even though, if correctly placed, they’re helping readers navigate.
To continue the metaphor, I think of transitional phrases as like big flashing arrows telling the reader which mental lane to move into. They’re not subtle! But we’ll talk about them more in a later post.
In addition to the ways in which they’re rhetorically different from coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions also differ in their grammar: coordinators can begin strong, independent clauses that don’t need no main clause. Coordinating conjunctions are the Wonder Woman of sentence joining words: they work well with others, but can also do the job solo.
But subordinating conjunctions are different. Since they turn the clauses they begin into subordinate, or dependent clauses, they’ll always need to be attached to another clause (hence the name “subordinating” conjunction).
A subordinate or dependent clause can’t be a sentence by itself — it’ll be a fragment. That’s a problem, because when a dependent clause is hanging out as a fragment between two sentences, the reader doesn’t know which sentence it’s supposed to be modifying, and that can lead to serious breakdowns in communication:
The Joker was able to break out of Arkham. Because Harley Quinn has been acting as a double agent. We’ll be able to re-capture him easily.
Uh-oh. We could interpret the fragment as attaching to either the sentence before it or the sentence after it:
The Joker was able to break out of Arkham because Harley Quinn has been acting as a double agent. We’ll be able to re-capture him easily.
The Joker was able to break out of Arkham. Because Harley Quinn has been acting as a double agent, we’ll be able to re-capture him easily.
Is Harley Quinn helping the Joker, or the Justice League? Where do her true loyalties (at the moment) lie? When the subordinate clause is left hanging as a sentence fragment, we have no idea.
So subordinators are more like the Robin of joining words: useful, but not a solo player. A subordinating clause becomes the sidekick to its main clause, just as Robin is sidekick to Batman.
In a sentence, a dependent clause can come before or after the main clause, as long as the two logically related ideas appear in the sentence.
Thus, you can write:
Even though it’s not a perfect analogy, I’m comparing subordinating conjunctions to Batman and Robin.
I’m comparing subordinating conjunctions to Batman and Robin even though it’s not a perfect analogy.
As you may have noticed in the examples above, punctuation tends to vary depending on whether you’ve got your subordinate clause before or after the main clause.
So if the subordinate clause comes first, we follow the pattern:
Subordinate clause + comma + independent clause
If I were a billionaire, I don’t think I would choose to become a caped vigilante.
Since Bruce Wayne became Batman, the number of crimes committed in Gotham City by costumed super-villains has actually gone up.
If the subordinate clause comes after the clause it’s modifying, we usually omit the comma:
Independent clause + subordinate clause
I don’t think I would choose to become a caped vigilante if I were a billionaire.
The number of crimes committed in Gotham City by costumed super-villains has actually gone up since Bruce Wayne became Batman.
If you’ve got a subordinate clause following a main clause but feel the clarity of the writing would be improved by the addition of a comma, go ahead and use one. Treat yourself.
The choice that makes communication most clear and precise, like the choice to use one’s superpowers (or one’s position as a martial arts expert genius detective billionaire) for good, rather than for evil, will always be the right choice.