There are three types of sentences: simple, compound and complex. If you are not sure about the distinctions, it is probably worth double checking. But don’t be fooled by the terminology – you can get some pretty convoluted ‘simple’ sentences as well as some very concise ‘complex’ sentences.
Here, we will be focusing on complex sentences. These feature two clauses whereby the main clause is essentially what the sentence is about while the other adds more information to it.
These clauses are joined by a subordinating conjunction. If you want some tips on how to teach subordinating conjunctions, you’ve come to the right place.
Can you identify the example in that previous sentence?
What is a subordinating conjunction
A subordinating conjunction introduces a subordinating clause, and joins it to the main clause in a sentence.
What are the 7 subordinating conjunctions?
Alas, you want a coordinating conjunction, there are loads more subordinating conjunctions than seven.
Subordinating conjunction examples
- Jodie has been thrilled ever since she got that new bike.
- My dog is barking because the postman just walked by.
- We need to clean up so that the office is tidy for the morning.
- I like living here even though parking is an issue.
Subordinating conjunctions list
- As if
- As long as
- Even though
- If only
- Now that
- Rather than
- So that
Subordinate clause or dependent clause?
The dictionary will tell you that subordinate means lower in rank or position. This reflects the way that one of the clauses acts as a sort of assistant to the main clause. Another way to look at it is that the subordinate clause doesn’t make sense on its own; it depends upon the main clause, which is why it is also known as the dependent clause, as opposed to an independent clause which can stand alone as a complete sentence..
Consider this very concise complex sentence: I came home because you called. The clause I came home does make sense on its own. The clause because you called does not and so is dependent on the first clause. It doesn’t really matter whether you call them subordinate or dependent clauses. However, the conjunctions are almost always referred to as being subordinating, so it might help pupils to make the link between the two if you refer to them as subordinating conjunctions and subordinate clauses.
Complex sentence or simple sentence
It would be wrong to suggest that the ability to write complex sentences necessarily makes you a better writer. Pupils should be made aware that the decision to use a simple, compound or complex sentence should be based on the effect they want to create.
There is a time and place for all three. Complex sentences do, however, allow you to attach a reason, explanation or condition to your main clause.
Which word or phrase is the most common subordinating conjunction?
Arguably, the most common subordinating conjunctions are if, because, when and that. If your aim is to generate evidence that your pupils can independently write complex sentences, these are probably your best bets; and our SPaG challenge mat for subordinating conjunctions are a great way for them to practise.
Main subordinating conjunctions and more
Of course, there are other subordinating conjunctions of equal importance that are worth knowing about. These include although, until, before and once. Make sure your pupils know that it is how they are used and not the words themselves that make them subordinating conjunctions.
For example, once can be used as an adverb and before as a preposition.
For a constant and entertaining visual reminder of how these words and others can be used, why not get hold of our subordinating conjunction display packs?
Subordinating conjunctions can be phrases
Subordinating conjunctions do not have to be individual words – you may want to emphasise that to your pupils. As long as they create a dependent clause, they count. As long as is a good example of this, as are even though, now that and by the time.
Combining an independent clause and dependent clause
While it’s important to know what the conjunctions are, using them to put sentences together is where the fun starts. A good way to do this is to have a selection of clause cards and get your pupils to join them together with a subordinating conjunction to make a complex sentence.
By no means does this have to create sensible sentences. In fact, having the freedom to make silly sentences will probably do a better job at securing the skill: I didn’t go to school because the dinosaurs are extinct.
Alternatively, give them a main clause plus subordinating conjunction and ask them to finish the sentence with a dependent clause of their own. If you don’t feel like making your own, save yourself the job by using our challenge mat or sentence maker resources.
Ordering clauses in a complex sentence
One of the great things about complex sentences is that there is often licence to play with the order of your clauses. You can put your subordinate clause at the beginning or end of your sentence, or possibly somewhere in the middle. For example:
- I set off straight for my home because it was getting dark.
- I set off, because it was getting dark, straight for my home.
- Because it was getting dark, I set off straight for my home.
Note the use of commas, except where the dependent clause follows the main clause. Also, remember that the ultimate position of your subordinating clause will be governed by the effect you want to create as a writer.
Complex sentence misconceptions
There are a few misconceptions about complex sentences. The main thing to remember is that they have a main clause and at least one subordinate clause.
Make sure you don’t confuse things like fronted adverbials and prepositional phrases with dependent clauses. If there isn’t a subordinating conjunction, it’s not a complex sentence.
Complex sentence/simple sentence variety
Emphasise to your class that the quality of the writing is not dictated by the number of complex sentences. A text that consists entirely of complex sentences will be as monotonous as one made of nothing but simple or compound sentences.
Urge your pupils to think about which sentence type is right for whatever they are trying to convey and include a rich variety of sentences in their writing, as appropriate.
So, could you now confidently answer the question what is a subordinating conjunction? If we have helped, we will be delighted because we all like to feel we are the difference that makes the difference. There – a final challenge for your class: can you write a sentence with three dependent clauses, as in the previous sentence?