What the heck are “Subordinating conjunctions”

Hello everyone,

and welcome. Explaining German words is fun. Looking at their origin, fleshing out underlying concepts, explaining their various meanings, explaining their various meanings, still explaining their various meanings,  explaining their various meanings, explaining their various meaning – it’s just great. But sometimes …  sometimes it sickens me. Sometimes, I simply need a break. And then, I explain complicated grammar concepts.
Today, is one of those days, and today, we’ll take a deep look at

subordinating conjunctions

And just so you know…  it is gonna get NERDY today. You’re in for some theory and linguistics so if you really just want to learn German … this is maybe not exactly what you need. But maybe you’ll find it interesting anyway.
So… reading up on grammar, be it German or some other language  you’ll sooner or later see the term subordinating conjunction… here’s a classic for German:

“A subordinate conjunction makes the verb go to the end.”

I would go to the end too just to get away from that scary long piece of jargon. Books use it, teachers use it but often they don’t bother explaining the term . They just assume you know what they are. Many people don’t however but they are too shy to ask.
Sure… you can look it up online or in a grammar book but actually the stuff there is…well… faulty. Yeah that’s right… we’ll challenge common knowledge today… fight the system!!
We’ll work out step by step from scratch what conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions do and what they do different than other words.
Then, we’ll have a look at the most common ones,  check out how they work in German and in English and we’ll take a look at other languages in the world.
So are you ready for a round of grammar? Great…

The term subordinating conjunctions obviously consists of 2 parts… sub and ordinating conjunctions… wait…  subordinating and conjunctions… yeah… that makes more sense. So subordinating conjunctions are special kinds conjunctions.

Conjunctions – what they do

The term conjunction is an fascinating import from the language of the Australian Aborigines and it means something like, “he who holds it together under the silver moo
oh whom am I kidding. Of course it comes from boring Laaaatin. Big yawn. It is related to the words junction and join and this is a big hint at the function of conjunctions. They join things. What do they join? The Navy or their friends in the kitchen? No… the other join. Meet the speaker of the conjunctions… and.

  • I listen to Bob Marley and The Wailers.

And grammatically joins the parts, but is that really all it does? I mean… wouldn’t one conjunction be enough then? One to join them all? … and besides… at least the parts from the example had joint anyway…
So… conjunctions do something else except merely joining things. They also express different relations between the parts they join. We can prove that by changing conjunctions.

  • I have to talk to Thomas and Maria.
  • I have to talk to Thomas or Maria.

The 2 example don’t mean the same because the conjunctions express different relations between Thomas and Maria. And tells us that they are part of a group. Or tells us that they are alternatives.  Yet or but express a contradiction of sorts, so expresses a consequence in a way and nor expresses that something is “also not” part of a group. Now… not all of the conjunctions I just listed work with the example we had. But conjunctions can’t only join single words. They can also join phrases

  • Do you want me to call you during lunch break or after work?

and even whole sentences.

  • Little Jim was tiredbut he kept playing World of Warcraft.
  • Then, at 3 am, his mom heard him, so she disconnected the router.
  • Jim was furious. His level 80 Panda had been in the middle of a boss fight. Nor had Jim any intention of going to bed anyway.

So… conjunctions join things and express relations between them. Sounds like a nice definition and you can find something like that online and in books a lot. But there are issues with this. Many issues.
And the most important one is this:
A word that joins something and expresses a relation can also be a preposition

  • The cup on the table is blue.

On joins cup and table and it expresses a local relation.

  • Despite the rain I went running.

Despite connects rain to the sentence and expresses a contradiction. So what is the difference between prepositions and conjunctions? It seems like they are doing exactly the same stuff… or do they???… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … SPOILERS:  they don’t

Conjunctions – what they really do

I must warn you…this part will be a bit grammar nerdy. If you don’t care and you want quick results just scroll down to the pink, bold result. All right.
So … originally I was confused as to what was the difference between conjunctions and prepositions.
After intense 30 minutes of Google page 1 research I came to the conclusion that there are not many good sources that could give me a catchy definition that explains the difference… I mean, outside the academic world of linguistics… them linguists in their ivory tower big, nasty Jargons swarming through the cloudy sky ready to put curious peasants in their place…. I dare not go there.
But then after some deliberation it dawned to me… and the subordinating conjunctions were a big help:
the function of conjunctions can seen as explaining relations between actions, while the function of prepositions is to express relations between entities… things and persons that is. And by action I don’t mean verb but basically the whole sentence or clause, including the subject.
This is certainly true for examples like these.

  • Thomas likes cats and Maria likes dogs.
  • Today, I ate a cake and I drank a coffee.

So… the actions in the second example are not just the verbs to eat and to drink but the verbs plus all their specifications… who did what where, why and so on.
Now…  what about things like this

  • Today, I found a dollar and a book.
  • Today, I found a dollar under a book.

Those 2 example look incredibly similar. And and under look like they both connect dollar and book and express a different relation. But when you look at the mechanics they are actually doing pretty different things. Under connects dollar and book. And connects actions. Now you say “Whaaaaat? What actions are there to connect?” The only verb in that sentence is finding. But, we’re actually doing 2 things… finding a book and finding a dollar. What did you do today? I found a dollar. What else did you do? I found a book. If we spell it out completely we get

  • Today, I found a dollar and I found a book.

This is just a bit repetitive so we tend to just skip things that are part of either sentence and just say them once. So we can skip the second I and we can skip the second found. Now, let’s take look form the other side…

  • Will you come tomorrow or will you come tomorrow?

This makes no sense because here we really have only ONE action… sleeping tomorrow. There is nothing to coordinate. If we change the specifications things are different

  • Will you come tomorrow or will Thomas come tomorrow?
  • Will you come tomorrow or will you come on Tuesday?

These are fine because we are have 2 different actions here… and of course in the second example people would skip all the redundant stuff and just say this:

  • Will you come tomorrow or will you come on Tuesday?

All right.  So… conjunctions relate actions to each other. And for any sentence with a conjunction in it, you can always spell it out and make it into 2 (very similar) sentences. And this is absolutely impossible for prepositions.

  • I found a dollar under a book.
  • I found a dollar under I found a book… whaaaaaaaat

There is no way I can spell this out because there is only one action there. Under the book is defining this one action. What did you do? I found a dollar. Oh, cool where? Under a book. It doesn’t really matter now whether under connects the book to the dollar or to the verb… what matters is that it connects a thing. That’s what prepositions do.

Conjunctions join actions (or sentences if you will)

Now… this is not the perfect comprehensive definition of conjunctions. It is a more of a perspective and there are problems with it. But I think it is the best way outside of really dense linguistic terminology.
Also, I think that this is a valid description for all languages … conjunctions behave that way, this is what they do. And what’s really cool is that as far as subordinating conjunctions go, all the issues don’t matter. They only ever join complete sentences. There is no skipping or stuff like that. They are the real conjunctions if you will….

Subordinating conjunctions – what they do

So… what do subordinating conjunctions do? Of course they connect and relate actions because that’s what all conjunctions do. But what is the difference to normal conjunctions.
A common explanation you can find in books and online is that subordablahblah… let’s just call them sucos (pron.: suckers) from now on… so the common definition is that sucos create a dependent clause… a sentence that can’t stand alone without another sentence to which it is attached. But I think this is actually missing the point. Why?
Because technically this is also true for but, and or yet, and those are not sucos.

  • But it was full of straw.
  • And it was full of straw.
  • Yet, it was full of straw.

Just like this, these sentences make as much sense as a stand-alone dependent sentence. Because content-wise, they are dependent too.
Now, someone could argue that a suco creates a grammatically dependent sentence. But again. That is missing the point.

  • Why did you comb this pony?”
    Because its hair was full of straw.”

Because is a suco and yet it stands alone with ist sentence just fine. Things like this are uttered every day, and you can find it in books too. So it is NOT really a grammar mistake. Nobody cringes at stuff like that as he or she would do when confronted with a REAL grammatical error.

  • Because its hair was full of many straw.

Now, THAT is a mistake. Having just a because-sentence alone… not so much.
So we see that standing alone or not is not the point. The real function of socus is something else and the being dependent is just a side effect of that.

And what is it then? What do sucos do that cos don’t? It has to do with the action. Conjunctions just connect them and express the relations… Sucos  on the other Hand put one action into an box and make it “part” of the other action. If you don’t know what I mean by box… well, here’s the box model  in a nutshell.
Every sentence consists of an activity expresses by one or more verbs and then some boxes that give additional information. Some information is a must have while other pieces are optional. Each box contains exactly one piece of additional information, it is answering one question.

  • Today,          I     gave my mom a present for her birthday.
  • [where?]  [who?]       [whom]    [what?]      [why/for what?]

You can ask all kinds of questions about one activity and the answer will be in one box… I have explained that in detail in my post on the Box Model and I’ll add the link below but for now let’s move on.
So… the suco packs one action into such a  box and that box is then put into the other action… we could also say that the action becomes “askable”. Let’s maybe do examples. Our two actions are:

  • I drank a beer.
  • I ate a pizza.

And now we’ll connect those using the conjunction and and the suco because.

  • I drank a beer and I ate a pizza.
  • I drank a beer because I ate a pizza.

The crucial difference is that I can ask for the pizza action in the second part from WITHIN the beer-part.

  • Why did you drink a beer.
    Because I ate a pizza.

The pizza eating answers a question we can ask ABOUT the drinking beer. This is impossible for the and-sentence. There is NO question you can ask to get more information about the drinking beer-sentence for which “and I ate a pizza” would be the proper answer.

  • Why/where/when/despite what fact/how/with whom … did you drink a beer?
    … uh…. and I ate a pizza…. uh… nope

You see? Pizza eating is NOT in any way part of the beer drinking sentence here. I can not ask for it from within. I can only generally ask if there is an action besides the beer drinking.

  • “Did you only drink a beer or did you do something else”.
    “Oh yeah… I also ate a pizza.”
    “So you drank a beer and ate a pizza.”
    “Yeah… I did consume these aliments.”

And it is the same for other conjunctions. Let’s try a different pair. Our actions are:

  • I wanted to talk to my sister.
  • She is watching TV.

Our conjunction is but and our suco is … hmmm … how about while.

  • I talked to my sister but she was watching TV.
  • I talked to my sister while she was watching TV.

I can ask for the while sentence using the talk-sentence.

  • When did you talk to your sister?
    While she was watching TV.

But there is NO way to make a question out of the talking-sentence that would have the but-part for an answer.

  • Why/when/where/how/with whom… did you talk to your sister?
    … uh…er… but she was watching TV… nope

Again, the only way to ask for the but part is to ask for the next action.

  • “I talked to my sister.”
    “And, what happened? Did she listen?”
    “No, she was watching TV.”
    “Oh so you talked to her but she was watching TV so she wouldn’t listen.”

So… let’s recap. We have 2 actions or 2 sentences…. action a and action b. With a conjunction we can connect them and expresses a small number of relations between them. With a suco we can transform one action such that it becomes a PART of the other one… so action b becomes a fully integrated part of action a. This integration can be seen when we move the box around.

  • Because I was hungry I ate a pizza.
  • I ate pizza because I was hungry.

No problem. Both sentence mean the same. And what happens when we try this with a conjunction…

  • I was hungry so I ate a pizza.
  • So I ate a pizza, I was hungry.

Absolute nonsense…because here, we have 2 independent actions and the conjunction so can only connect them in a certain sequence. It connects, but it doesn’t integrate.
This is also the most simple way to check if a word is a suco or a co… just try to change the order of things. If it works, it is a suco.

All right. So, sucos pack an action up into a box which you can put somewhere into another sentence as an additional piece of information. What information it is depends entirely on the suco. We can combine the same 2 actions with all kinds of different sucos.

  • I drank a beer after I ate a pizza.   – when
  • I drank a beer although I ate a pizza. – despite what fact
  • I drank a beer because I ate a pizza. – why

Those are all really common sucos. But the most common one of them all is. That. That is a but particular in that it is kind of hard to phrase what kind of  relation it expresses. But it turns the action into the box that answers to what?.

  • What did you forget?”
    “I forgot that I wanted to clean my bathroom.
  • What did he tell you?”
    “He told me that he passed the test.

Why is it so common? Well, because it creates an object box, a box that answer to what and that it just really relevant for many many situations… more relevant than when or why.
And that is true for any language I think…  but before we talk about other languages in general, let’s take a look at sucos in German… what’s that? Oh why they are actually called subordinating you ask? Well, because they kind of lower the rank of the sentence they’re being attached to. It is not on the same level as the one it is integrated into. But those names have been coined in the age of Caesars and slaves and I think the more appropriate name in 2013 would be … integrating conjunctions :). But  oh what was that… those nasty screams, they are making my blood freeze… oh god, it is the Jargons… they have heard me. They are coming. They are flapping their leather wings and they are coming to take me with them… to the torture chambers of the ivory tower to find out where the one ring is… they mustn’t know that it is on the door…. … … … … … 

Subordinating conjunctions in German

We’ve learned that sucos integrate a sentence /action into another sentence so that it is a part of it. This part can then be moved around, and I can ask for this part just as I can ask for any other part of a sentence… by using why, where, how long and so on.
All this is a universal feature… so it is not only true for English but also for German and any other language that has sucos.
German sucos are a little bit special though… or maybe it is not the suco itself but the format it creates.
The suco-sentence is usually called dependent clause. I often also call it minor sentence or side sentence but whatever the name is this sentence has its own structure… let’s take 2 actions.

  • Ich gehe heute in die Bibliothek.
  • I go to the library today.
  • Ich muss ein Buch abgeben.
  • I have to return a book.

Now we want to join them and of course we’ll take the suco that expresses reason… weil (because). In English all we have to do is put because at the beginning of the second sentence and then drop that somewhere fit in the first one.

  • I go to the library because I have to return a book.

Not so in German… in German, if you want to integrate a sentence you have to perform what I call the second to last move… you have to take whatever verb is in position 2 and move it to the end. So let’s do that… first, we add the suco.

  • Weil ich muss ein Buch abgeben.

And now we make the move.

  • Weil ich            ein Buch abgeben muss.

Now our box is packed and we can put it into the other sentence

  • Ich gehe in die Bibliothek, weil ich ein Buch abgeben muss.

Now… for someone who isn’t used to this it is really a big deal and it takes a lot of concentration at first. And naturally you have 2 questions now.

“Is moving the verb to the end really all we have to do?”

There might be another adjustment necessary with regard to the subject.

“Oh … okay, that sucks … but at least the verb is always moved to the very end, right?”

If you have a combination of a helper verb a modal and a normal verb, word order changes.

“Ok never mind then… I’ll just learn Spanish.”

Seriously though… especially the second thing is something really rare and you have to be really advanced to even come across that problem. So it is fine to say that it always goes to the end.
As for the subject-thing… well, it has to come right after the suco but I will talk more about that in the posts on German sentence structure. I’d rather tell you another difference between German and English that you’ll certainly find equally annoying.
English uses a lot of words in different functions. That can be a suco and a pronoun. After and before can be prepositions as well as sucos…. and I mean why not… when they express the same relation that makes total sense.
German is different. has a distinct word for each function.

  • Ich ruf’ dich an bevor ich zur Party gehe. – suco
  • I call you before I go to the party. – suco
  • Ich rufe dich vor der Party an. – preposition
  • I call you before the party. – preposition

So… for most relations you’ll have to learn 2 words… one for the suco and one for the preposition… (and one for the adverb but they don’t know that yet… heheheheh) … and if you really start Spanish now…I understand :).
Anyway… so there is a difference in structure and a difference in vocabulary but other than that German and English are pretty similar.
At the end of this post I’ll give you a list with the most common sucos and their German translations but first let’s broaden our view and look a other languages and answer the following question…

Are (subordinating) conjunctions universal… like verbs

Most European languages have conjunctions and sucos. Also, the things conjunctions and sucos do are the same. In any language that has them sucos will integrate one sentence into another as one box and make it “askable”.
And finally most European languages have the same cos and sucos. Sure, maybe sometimes a specific relation is expressed using 2 or 3 words instead of one but in essence the same things can be expressed.
So… with all that in mind… can we assume that it is like that all over the world? Do ALL languages have a similar set of conjunctions?
I haven’t made any studies but I will boldly ho ahead and say NOOOOOO. And there are 2 reasons for that.

First of, for a different culture different relations may matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if some language has 3 different kinds of and for example… 

  • Thomas and Jim…. that means they are a group and they have equal status
  • Thomas ind Jim… a group but  Thomas has a lower status
  • Thomas ond Jim… a group but Thomas has a higher status

We say… uh it is all the same… but for them those are 3 quite different things. Just as for someone who learns English but and yet might be the same thing.
The example is of course invented but as far as I know status plays a much more prominent role in many Asian languages and that does reflect in language, too.
The European culture is a pretty homogn… homeowner… uh… all European have a quite similar culture so our cos and sucos are all pretty similar but it is definitely imaginable that other language have words to express relations that for simply don’t matter so much.

The second reason why conjunctions are NOT universal is that having a extra word is not the only way to connect and express relations between actions… how about a language where they just say this:

  • I eat pizza reason I am hungry.
  • I want to call you problem I was out of credits.

Now… at first we’re like
“Oh my goooood… they are using nouns… that is sooo stiff. What a weird and difficult language”
But hey… remember that English uses the word that for 2 different functions too…  and we’re all okay with it. It’s just a question of getting used to it and after a year of speaking that fictional language… chances are it doesn’t even feel “noun-y” no more.
But although for us they are nouns, that language was still using words to do the job. But not even that is necessary. There are many languages out there that express a great deal of information by using endings or other modification to words.
How about this… a language that expresses the relation reason using the ending –cause

  • I  am-cause hungry eat pizza
  • Maria wants-cause talk about the dinner calls Thomas

Why not. Or a language that inserts the syllable –onoff– to express the idea of contradiction.

  • It r-onoff-ains I go to the park.
  • Although it rains, I go to the park.

Sure… that would be incredibly difficult to learn for us but for them our idea of using extra words would be equally weird.
So… ultimately, having conjunctions is just one way of doing things and other languages might not have it. And after all, the terminology is based on Latin grammar anyway and especially looking at English it is arguable if it even makes sense to call a word a conjunct… oh god… there was this scream again… the Jargons. They are really close…I really have to hurry now…
So… conjunctions are not necessary and also the relations expressed by them might vary.

That said though, I think that at least the basic relations are expressed in one way or the other in all languages because they are integral part of the human perception of the world. We all perceive 3 dimensions and we almost all have an idea of time. For an animal, the concept of reason or cause might beyond its intellectual reach with that but anyway… I think it is a pretty essential thing for the human. You can’t build tools without it and tools are what elevated us over all those dumb animals that we now ru… what’s that.. oh crows drop nuts on the street and wait for a car to drive over it? Why would they do THAT? That is soooo dumb… all they’ll achieve with that is that the nut will be broken and in little pieces and they can’t carry them home anymo… oh wait… wait… damn it, I wonder if crows have a word for so that in their language… anyway…
I think we’re done. Yeaaaaaaay… this was an in depth look at subordinating conjunctions.

What you should take home with you is this:

  • conjunctions connect  actions /sentences and express a relation between them… so they are like prepositions for verbs in  a way
  • subordinating conjunctions do the same but go one step further. They fully integrate one sentence into another one. It is then just a part, a box, like any other box and you can move it around and ask for it using questions like why, when, what and so on.
  • In German, subordinating conjunctions change the word order.

And finally this… subordinating conjunctions are SUPER-important and you should learn the important ones right at the beginning even if that means that you’ll not know what cummubcer means :)… verbs are what makes the language move, (subordinating) conjunctions put verbs in order and relation so they are the nuts and bolts of a language and you do need them… every day.
If you have any questions or suggestions or if you know a language that has cool conjunctions or none of them at all please leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

The most common subordinating conjunctions:

  •  that               – dass
  • if                     – wenn/falls
  • whether        – ob 
  • because         – da, weil
  • although       – obwohl
  • when             – als /wenn
  • after              – nachdem
  • before           – bevor
  • while            – während
  • as soon as    – sobald

Further reading… yeah… I know… maybe for some other day :D:

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