What are coordinating conjunctions and why should you care? For one thing, conjunctions are like any other essential part of English grammar. They have a particular use, and when they are used correctly, they blend into the background.
The Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, says:
Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance. In English, the mnemonic acronym FANBOYS can be used to remember the coordinators for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are not the only coordinating conjunctions; various others are used, including “and nor” (British), “but nor” (British), “or nor” (British), “neither” (“They don’t gamble; neither do they smoke”), “no more” (“They don’t gamble; no more do they smoke”), and “only” (“I would go, only I don’t have time”). Types of coordinating conjunctions include cumulative conjunctions, adversative conjunctions, alternative conjunctions, and illative conjunctions.
Here are some examples of coordinating conjunctions in English and what they do:
For – presents rationale (“They do not gamble or smoke, for they are ascetics.”)
And – presents non-contrasting item(s) or idea(s) (“They gamble, and they smoke.”)
Nor – presents a non-contrasting negative idea (“They do not gamble, nor do they smoke.”)
But – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, but they don’t smoke.”)
Or – presents an alternative item or idea (“Every day they gamble, or they smoke.”)
Yet – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, yet they don’t smoke.”)
So – presents a consequence (“He gambled well last night, so he smoked a cigar to celebrate.”)
We use and, or, and but as connectors of words, phrases, clauses, or sentences of equal rank.
- apples and oranges
- apples or oranges
- apples, but not oranges
In a sentence, we can use “and” and “or” to join strings of nouns or strings of verbs:
- Apples and oranges and bananas (are tasty).
- Wash and dry (the dishes).
- Apples or bananas or oranges
- Apples and oranges, but not bananas
- I love cooking and my pets and my family.
I would prefer to use serial commas to connect my string rather than conjunctions:
- Apples, bananas, or oranges
- Apples, bananas, and oranges
- I love cooking, my pets, and my family.
That argument is hogwash.
For whom are you writing? Are you writing only yourself or are you writing for an unknown reader who may one day buy your book? If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like. But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader. Using serial commas will make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying. Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.
But enough about the commas–let’s get back to conjunctions.
The word “but” is a little different from “and” or “or.” It is a coordinating conjunction, and we use “but” to join two words:”
- (I want you to) sing, but loudly.
“But” is also a connector that indicates contrast.
- I like black but not white.
“But” can connect just about any kind of word or phrase that “and” and “or” can connect, with one difference: it can’t connect nouns in phrases.
- Consider Betty and Judy (went shopping). We wouldn’t say Betty but Judy (went shopping).
However, “but” can connect noun phrases to other phrases:
- Betty and Judy (went shopping) but I don’t know who drove.
When I speak, I have a habit of beginning my sentences with the conjunctions “and,” “but,” “because,” and “so.” Because these words are conjunctions, connector words, some people will say this is wrong. I disagree with them, for this reason: in this case, these conjunctions are connecting ideas.
On page 257, The Chicago Manual of Style says this rule has “no historical or grammatical foundation.” The CMOS further points out that William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence freely began sentences with those four conjunctions.
These people were well educated, and we can assume they understood grammar as well as anyone. Consider the following sentence, written by Abraham Lincoln:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
As he was a lawyer as well as a respected public speaker, we know Abe was a well-educated man.
Get It Write Online says:
“Most likely, many people believe they should not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction because their grammar teachers in grade school discouraged them from doing so. Yet such a rule is completely unjustifiable. When grammar teachers teach youngsters the essentials of sentence structure, they most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, they may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like this one:
She was a nice girl. And smart, too.
In this example, using “and” after the period is wrong because the second “sentence” is not really a sentence at all: it has neither a subject nor a verb.
So, just like the ubiquitous (but often unnecessary) “comma before the word because” and the silly debate over the incredibly important serial comma, we will likely have this disagreement for many generations to come.
Sources and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Conjunction (grammar),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conjunction_(grammar)&oldid=771179901 (accessed March 28, 2017).
Weird Coordinating Conjunctions: Yet, For, and So, Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, July 10, 2014, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/weird-coordinating-conjunctions-yet-for-and-so, (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).
University of Chicago (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.
Starting Sentences with “And” or “But,” 03/26/2001 Nancy Tuten, Get It Write, http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/032601startsentandbut.htm (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).