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I am struggling with finding any remotely formal criteria for distinguishing these two types of clauses. There are typologies which already define certain groups of conjunctions, but there are tons of discrepancies between traditions. Hence, I wanted to find a way to determine a type of a conjunction without referring to metalinguistic description. This seems very hard.

According to Webster, the difference boils down to pretty much if the clause makes sense on its own:

  • Independent: We arrived early to the party.
  • Dependent: when we arrived early to the party
  • Full sentence: The host was surprised when we arrived early to the party.

or:

  • Independent: The store doesn’t open until 10:00 AM.
  • Dependent: since the store doesn’t open until 10:00 AM
  • Full sentence: Since the store doesn’t open until 10:00 AM, we have time to get some breakfast first.

Other sources say it's all about the "dependent marker word" that introduces it:

  • When Jim studied in the Sweet Shop for his chemistry quiz, it was very noisy.

But to me this seems like a circular logic: you know a clause is subordinate (dependent), because it was introduced by a subordinating conjunction, which you know is subordinating because it introduces a subordinate clause. Plus different European languages overlap in terms of conjunctions to a high degree, but the division is slightly different each time.

The “full idea” test basically is basically taking a whole clause (with the conjunction) and seeing if it “makes sense” on its own. But let me take some discontinuous/correlative conjunctions (which in English tradition are pretty much synonymous with coordinating conjunctions, ignoring the if … then structure), i.e.:

  • Sentence 1: Either he is crazy.
  • Sentence 2: Or he is courages.
  • Full sentence: Either he is crazy or he is courageous.

How does a stand-alone sentence make sense starting with either more than one beginning with when? You can go to reordering clauses withing a sentence (initial position and all that), but that is a syntactic idea, not semantic-functional, plus there are borderline cases.

Am I missing an obvious way to determine the type of conjunctions?

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    Your mistake is in assuming that "either" is a coordinator (your conjunction). It isn't -- it's a determinative functioning as a marker of the first coordinate, a main clause in a main clause coordination.
    – BillJ
    Sep 7 at 14:31
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    And and or have important syntactic and logical properties. But is a non-commutative version of and with a presupposition of surprise. For is no longer used as a conjunction. That completes the list of English coordinating conjunctions. Anything else is either not a conjunction (check the POS list for alternatives, like complementizer), or else introduces a subordinate constituent, thus making it a subordinate conjunction. Oh, and Webster is not the right place to get grammatical information.
    – jlawler
    Sep 7 at 14:31
  • @Billj would you be so kind refer me to a framework that separates marking coordinates from being a conjunction? Sep 7 at 18:23
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    @MrVocabulary To me "conjunction" means "coordinating conjunction", the class involved in Conjunction Reduction. I don't use the phrase "subordinat(ing) conjunction" much because just about anything that can appear with a subordinate clause can be called a subordinating conjunction, and that's a very large class that I rarely need to refer to.
    – jlawler
    Sep 7 at 23:52
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    @Araucaria-him Or is already on it. Nor is composite morphologically and syntactically.
    – jlawler
    Sep 12 at 15:37
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It is difficult to discriminate coordinating and subordinating conjunctions in English¹ on clauses alone, because there aren't easily testable differences between main clauses and subordinate clauses. However, a coordinating conjunction can also connect phrases, e.g., two very simple noun phrases in "Alice and Bob", a feature that subordinating conjunctions lack.

¹This is a strong contrast to the situation in German where main clauses and subordinate clauses differ in basic word order and one can easily classify conjunctions by the word order in the clauses they start.

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    I'd say that the difference with respect to clauses is easily testable. If a clause is not dependent on any other element in the sentence, it's a main clause, otherwise it's a dependent (subordinate) clause. Dependent clauses are often marked by a subordinator such as "that", but sometimes there is no internal marker of subordination: they are shown to be subordinate by virtue of their function in the larger construction.
    – BillJ
    Sep 7 at 18:06
  • @BillJ I would love to see an answer that shows that, because I do find it somewhat difficult to reach the same answers as my colleagues. Sep 7 at 18:26
  • @jk - Reinstate Monica that introduces another level of problems: the boundary between a phrase and ellided elements of a clause are often indistinguishable. As for German, that is indeed usually the case, but some Konjunktionadverbien move within the clause, others are fixed. Sep 7 at 18:28
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    @BillJ The real problem is defining " is dependend on any other element in the sentence", different theories of syntax tend to differ in that point. A theory-free criterion is rather hard to establish for English. Sep 7 at 22:33
  • @jk-ReinstateMonica But there are a considerable number of other tests one could apply! Sep 12 at 23:29

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