Grammar 101: Coordination Part 1 – See-Saws

“Happiness is not a noun or a verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.”
Eric Weiner

In previous posts in this series, I’ve examined clauses, discussed why they matter, unpicked main clauses and untangled clauses from phrases. In this post in the series, I turn my attention to coordination.

Coordination is both the simplest and the most complicated way of joining ideas together in written English. Simple because it is through coordination that we mostly join ideas together in spoken language (mostly using the conjunctions ‘and’ and ‘but’). And complicated because it is through coordination that we mostly join ideas together in spoken language, and for many untangling spoken and written usage can be a minefield.

The current national curriculum describes coordination as follows:

Words or phrases are co-ordinated if they are linked as an equal pair by a co-ordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, or).

With the oversight in that description that clauses may also be coordinated, several examples of coordination are provided (We will unpick why one of these examples is incorrect later).

Susan and Amra met in a café. [links the words Susan and Amra as an equal pair]
They talked and drank tea for an hour. [links two clauses as an equal pair]
Susan got a bus but Amra walked. [links two clauses as an equal pair]

So, we coordinate sentence elements (which may be words, phrases or clauses) that are equal, and we do this using coordinating conjunctions.


It’s worth exploring the etymology of the key words involved.

The word ‘conjunction’ has two key elements: the base ‘junct’ from the Latin ‘iugare’ (to join) and the prefix ‘com-‘ (with, together – a variant of ‘con-‘). A conjunction is, therefore, that which joins two sentence elements together. I show a picture of a road junction and explain that just like a road junction joins two roads together [fig. 1], a conjunction joins two parts of a sentence together.

[fig. 1]

The word ‘coordination’ again has two key elements: the base ‘ordin’ from the Latin ‘ordo’ (row, rank, series, arrangement) and the prefix ‘co-‘ (with, together – and another ‘com-‘ variant). So, to coordinate is to arrange sentence elements in a row, a series, in order. To get this concept across, I start by explaining that things that coordinate are the same in some way. If the children in uniform, I’ll say, ‘You all coordinate. What is the same about you?’ They always mention their uniforms. Or, if not, show them a series of six items of clothing, something like [fig. 2]

[fig. 2]

Ask the children which items of clothing might coordinate, and why. They might pick the coat and scarf because they are both blue. Or the sunglasses and shorts because they are both worn in sunny weather. We can now put these two concepts together, and explain that we now know that a conjunction is a ‘joining word’, that coordinating ‘is putting things together that are the same’. So a coordinating conjunction ‘joins parts of a sentence that are the same.”

Coordinating Conjunctions

Many teachers use FANBOYS to remember the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Personally, I ignore nor as it is mostly used alongside the word neither (pairs of conjunctions like this are called ‘correlative conjunctions’ and not something covered by the national curriculum). The other six are worth teaching and have the following meanings:

and adds one thing to another: Jim loves coffee and cake.

but contrasts one thing with another: Jim drank six cups but couldn’t sleep.

or provides alternatives: Jim should drink milk or juice instead.

so shows cause and effect: Jim couldn’t sleep, so he watched television all night.

yet is similar in meaning to ‘although’: Jim couldn’t sleep yet still drank more coffee.

for expresses a reason and is similar in meaning to ‘because’: Jim couldn’t focus on his work, for he had barely slept all night.

It is worth noting that for is less commonly used in modern writing, where because is much more widely used. But it is useful to know for two reasons. Firstly, if children are reading older books (and you don’t have to go back too far), then they will come across for used as a conjunction quite frequently. It feels a more choice than using because so, as written language in children’s writing has become less formal over time, for has become a less common option. But it is more frequently used in more formal types of writing: essays, research documents and so on. It is, therefore, a great word to use in place of because to sharpen up writing and make it appear more formal.

I teach the the coordinating conjunctions in the following year groups: year 1 – and, but; year 2 – or, so; year 4 – yet; and year 6 – for.

The See-Saw Metaphor

Because coordination is concerned with joining sentence elements that are the same and are, therefore, balanced, I use the visual metaphor of a see-saw to demonstrate this to children, starting by joining the simplest sentence elements together – single words.

[fig. 3]

In [fig. 3], the coordinating conjunction and forms the pivot of the see-saw. And it joins and balances two sentence elements that are grammatically the same – the nouns yaks and llamas. We could swap out one noun for another and write ‘Jim keeps yaks and refrigerators in his back garden.” but we couldn’t balance two different word classes in this way – it would be grammatically incorrect to join a noun to an adjective: for example, ‘Jim keeps yaks and ancient his back garden.’ They are not the same, so don’t balance.

[fig. 4]

in [fig. 4], the pivot of out see-saw is again the coordinating conjunction and, which this time joins balances the word large to the word hairy. And these two words balance because they are both adjectives. I couldn’t join an adjective to an adverb in this way. ‘The yaks are large and slowly.’ makes no grammatical sense at all.

[fig. 5]

And in [fig. 5], the pivot of our see-saw is the coordinating conjunction but, which joins and balances the two adverbs firmly and carefully, setting them in opposition to one another.

Once children understand that we can coordinate words that are grammatically similar in this fashion, we can move onto larger coordinated sentence elements.

[fig. 6]

In [fig. 6] the coordinating conjunction and joins and balances two noun phrases – yak’s milk cheese and soured llama cream. As for words, when dealing with larger chunks, they must also be gramatically similar. We cannot balance a noun phrase with an adverbial phrase such as in his garden shed. ‘Jim makes yak’s milk cheese and in his garden shed.’ doesn’t balance at all.

[fig. 7]

In [fig. 7] the coordinating conjunction and joins the first adverbial phrase each morning to the second, every evening. One adverbial phrase neatly coordinates with another.

[fig. 8]

We could coordinate two predicates (see my previous post on main clauses to learn about predicates) in the same way. In [fig. 8], the predicates infuses the cream with garlic and sweetens it with honey are coordinated by the conjunction or.

This example explains why the national curriculum example posted earlier is incorrect. The sentence, ‘They talked and drank tea for an hour.’, cannot be coordinated as indicated by the national curriculum as ‘They talked and drank tea for an hour.’ They talked is main clause whereas drank tea is a predicate. They do not balance. Rather, we should coordinate the sentence as follows: ‘They talked and drank tea for hours.’ Now, we are coordinating the grammatically similar sentence elements – the two predicates (two things that they did) talked and drank tea.

[fig. 9]

We can coordinate clauses too. In [fig. 9] two main clauses Jim has a local market stall and nobody buys his dairy products are neatly balanced using the coordinating conjunction but.

[fig. 10]

And as long as the two sentence elements are the same, it doesn’t matter how complex it gets, they can still be coordinated. In [fig. 10], two non-finite clauses (a type of subordinate clause which I’ll tackle in a future post), sitting alone at home and smelling strongly of yak are balanced by the coordinating conjunction and.

We’re Not Balancing Sugar

One important point to note is that balancing grammatically similar sentence elements is not the same as balancing sugar. To make the sugar balance we’d need to place the same amount of stuff on either side of the see-saw. But when balancing sentence elements, the amount of stuff is irrelevant. All that matters is that it is the same stuff.

[fig. 11]

In [fig.11], the coordinating conjunction and joins the longer noun phrase Lord Fotherington Smythe III to the short-but-sweet noun Daisy. Joining a noun phrase to a noun is grammatically okay because they are elements that function in the same manner – as nouns by describing a person, place, thing or idea. It matters not that one is much longer than the other; because the are made of the same stuff, they balance.

Tune in Next Time

I shall continue the series of posts on coordination by next exploring how we can turn see-saws into bridges to coordinate multiple sentence elements, before looking at how I integrate see-saws and bridges with my Rainbow Grammar approach, and finally how a technique as simple as coordination can be used to craft beautiful sentences.

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