Grammar bites: how to teach the difference between a conjunctive adverb and a subordinating conjunction

Our second Grammar Bites advice column tackles a tricky definition task in primary schools 

Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

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One thing Grammar Bites will regularly do is provide brief primers intended to help you get to grips with the National Curriculum glossary. These will be concrete, to-the-point affairs that generally focus on the exemplary cases of particular features. 

What you should remember, however, is that there will almost always be boundary cases that do not neatly fit the criteria discussed. That’s how grammar is and – while it may be frustrating initially – it is something you get used to with time.

Grammar tips

Our first primer deals with something we’ve been asked several times recently: how to tell a conjunctive adverb from a subordination conjunction. 

This is a perfectly reasonable question. After all, both features serve the same overall purpose, explicitly linking one part of a text to another. 

Thus, in (1), the subordinating conjunction “because” marks the second clause as providing a reason for the first. In (2), the conjunctive adverb “however” marks the second clause as contrastive:

(1) Students like grammar because they love learning.

(2) Some students like grammar. However, other students think it's hell.

Seen in more general terms, therefore, both are instances of cohesive devices: grammatical resources that help fit a text together as an integrated piece of discourse. 

Beyond this broad overlap, however, the similarity stops. For, while both can be construed as working to similar ends, the “grammatical” way they do this is distinct. 

Here's what we mean.

Subordinating conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions are units such as “after”, “because”, “if”, “in order that”, “since”, and “while”. 

They serve to introduce a subordinate clause and mark its relationship to the wider material on which it depends. When it comes to finite subordinate clauses, a subordinating conjunction is often obligatory for the clause to actually be "subordinate". 

Thus, remove “because” from (1) and we get not one but two main clauses, with the second now requiring either a coordinator or an appropriate punctuation mark:   


(1) Students like grammar they love learning.


A final key feature is their tight integration into the structure of the clause they introduce. This is generally indicated by the fact that:


(a) They must appear at the beginning of the clause:

Students like grammar because they love learning.

Students like grammar they because love learning.


(b) You would not mark them off with a comma in formal writing:

Students like grammar because they love learning.

Students like grammar because, they love learning.


(c) They often allow the subordinate clause to move around:

If you leave me now, you take away the very heart of me.

You take away the very heart of me if you leave me now.


Conjunctive adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs, on the other hand, are adverbs such as “also”, “however”, “meanwhile”, “nevertheless”, and “therefore”. 

You will also see such units sometimes referred to as "linking adverbs", "conjunct adverbs" and "sentence adverbs". 

Unlike subordinating conjunctions, they do not mark the presence of a subordinate clause. Moreover, they are entirely optional, in that they can be generally omitted without affecting the grammaticality of their host material. 

Thus, remove “however” from (1) and you still have two perfectly grammatical main clauses:


(1) Some students like grammar. Other students think it's hell.


Finally, unlike subordinating conjunctions, they are much more loosely attached to their host. Thus:


(a) They are generally more mobile:

The experiment was disastrous. Nevertheless, we resolved to try harder.

The experiment was disastrous. We nevertheless resolved to try harder.

The experiment was disastrous. We resolved to try harder, nevertheless.


(b) You would mark them with a comma when they introduce a clause in formal writing:

The students entered the classroom; meanwhile, a storm was brewing.

The students entered the classroom; meanwhile a storm was brewing


(c) They do not allow the clause they modify to move around – at least, not while retaining the same meaning relationship to the surrounding material:

The students entered the classroom. Meanwhile, a storm was brewing.

Meanwhile, a storm was brewing. The students entered the classroom.


Grammar advice

Bearing these different characteristics in mind should help you and your students more reliably distinguish these two grammatical devices. 

Of course, as always, the ultimate question remains: why care? 

At a brute level, one reason is simply the National Curriculum itself. While this doesn't specifically mention "conjunctive adverbs", it does require students to distinguish between "adverbs" and "subordinating conjunctions". Since a conjunctive adverb is a kind of adverb, the above characteristics will also help them do this. 

Moreover, since conjunctive adverbs essentially function adverbially, modifying the clause in which they appear, grasping such adverbs can also help students grasp this core grammatical function.

Much more fundamentally, however, and like all grammatical categories, "conjunctive adverbs" and "subordinating conjunctions" each represent a distinct kind of meaning-making resource. An awareness of these differences can empower students to appreciate the subtle ways in which texts can guide their audiences through, including an appreciation of where and when they might be more effectively left out. 

Unfortunately, this isn't something we have the space to explore here. But it is something to which we'll return in future pieces. 

And, as ever, what we will always say is this: by far the best way to develop your own sense of their possibilities is to explore them for yourself.

Ian Cushing is a teaching fellow in English linguistics at University College London and a doctoral researcher in applied linguistics at Aston University. Mark Brenchley is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He works on the Growth in Grammar project, which is seeking to understand what grammatical development in student writing looks like

Grammar Bites is a fortnightly grammar column.  If there are any questions to answer or bits you want bitten, let us know on Twitter (@ian_cushing and @Growing_Grammar) or email (  

Additional Resources

Crystal, D. (2004) Rediscover Grammar (3rd edition). Harlow: Pearson Education.


Subordinating Conjunctions:

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Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

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