# Distinction between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions

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?

• 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. Sep 7, 2021 at 14:31
• 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. Sep 7, 2021 at 14:31
• @Billj would you be so kind refer me to a framework that separates marking coordinates from being a conjunction? Sep 7, 2021 at 18:23
• @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. Sep 7, 2021 at 23:52
• @Araucaria-him Or is already on it. Nor is composite morphologically and syntactically. Sep 12, 2021 at 15:37