Today, I want to tell you about something important that causes a lot of trouble for IELTS writing candidates. The terminology may seem a little advanced, but actually this is something that everyone who wants to score more than band 6 should know. It is the difference between subordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs.

I will try to explain this in a very simple way so that everyone can understand it. I know that the terms “subordinating conjunction” and “conjunctive adverb” probably seem a little difficult, but I promise you that by the end of this lesson you will be able to use them easily.

Also, remember that when it comes to learning English, you don’t necessarily need to know the names of grammatical structures. The important thing is that you can really use those structures.

What is a Subordinating Conjunction?

Let’s start with subordinating conjunctions. These are words that begin dependent clauses. You will easily recognise some of the most common ones:

  • While
  • Because
  • When
  • Although
  • Despite

There are many more, but those are just a few of the most common subordinating conjunctions. They begin dependent clauses, which means that these clauses must be attached to independent clauses:

We were hungrybecause we had been hiking all morning.
Independent clauseDependent clause

In this example, we have two clauses. The dependent clause begins with the subordinating conjunction “because.”

Sentence Fragments

The important thing to know about dependent clauses is that they cannot function as a sentence without being attached to an independent clause. If you do that, it is called a sentence fragment, and it is a pretty big grammatical error. You should avoid this in IELTS writing.

The easy way to check for this error is to see whether a sentence begins with a subordinating conjunction and then ask whether or not there is an independent clause:

  • Despite the obvious health risks.

This sentence is not a good one. It is a sentence fragment, which means we need to add an independent clause in order to fix it:

  • Despite the obvious health risks, many people continue to smoke cigarettes.
  • Many people continue to smoke cigarettes despite the obvious health risks.

Note that we can use these two clauses with either the dependent clause first or the independent clause first.

What is a Conjunctive Adverb?

Conjunctive adverbs (sometimes called “adverbial conjunctions”) are words or phrases that begin an independent clause and connect it to another clause. They follow a full stop or semi-colon and are followed by a comma. These are also very common words that include:

  • However
  • Therefore
  • Meanwhile
  • Consequently
  • Furthermore

We can use these words in different ways but they always begin an independent clause:

He was really frustrated;however, he kept his temper.
The enemy advanced on the city.Meanwhile, the citizens prepared to defend their homes.
Independent clauseIndependent clause

In both of these examples, there are two independent clauses. In the first, they are part of one sentence and in the second they are divided into two sentences. We can join them into one sentence only if the meaning is really clear and they are closely related.

It is worth noting that there are different types of conjunctive adverb and that you should not mix them up in terms of meaning. Here is a list of conjunctive adverbs:

Comma Splice

Importantly, conjunctive adverbs follow semi-colons and full stops (periods). One of the most common grammatical errors among IELTS candidates is splitting two independent clauses with just a comma. This is called a comma splice. Sometimes it happens with a conjunctive adverb:

  • The students had been misbehaving, therefore the principal cancelled the school play.
  • The students had been misbehaving; therefore, the principal cancelled the school play.
  • The students had been misbehaving. Therefore, the principal cancelled the school play.

Notice the change in punctuation here. We can fix this mistake by adding either a semi-colon or a full-stop and then putting a comma after the conjunctive adverb.

Note: Some of these words can be used in a slightly different way. They can be inserted into the middle of an independent clause and the punctuation will be different as a result:

  • He wondered, however, whether it was such a good idea to solicit opinions from uninformed people.

In this case, the word is not beginning an independent clause and is merely inserted into the middle of it, separated by commas. It serves a quite different function from our usual method.

The Difference Between Subordinating Conjunctions and Conjunctive Adverbs

The difference between subordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs is that subordinating conjunctions begin dependent clauses and conjunctive adverbs begin independent ones.

When you remember that, it is not very difficult to use them correctly. However, it can be easy to forget this because there are many of each type. As such, it is quite common for people to confuse subordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs like this:

The pupils were unhappy about the new rules. Although, the teacher did not listen to their complaints.

The problem here is that we have mixed up “Although” and “However.” These words have quite similar meanings but they are used very differently. The sentence should have read:

The pupils were unhappy about the new rules. However, the teacher did not listen to their complaints.

To use “Although,” we would need to figure out which of these clauses could realistically become a dependent clause. Either of them could technically be dependent, but it is more likely that we could do it with the first clause:

Although the pupils were unhappy about the new rules, the teacher did not listen to their complaints.

This is grammatically correct and logical.

It is also quite common that people use these words in basically the correct way, but then confuse some aspect of the punctuation. To re-use the above example, people often put a comma after “Although” by mistaking it for a conjunctive adverb:

Although, the pupils were unhappy about the new rules, the teacher did not listen to their complaints.

This is simply not correct and we need to remember that “Although” is a subordinating conjunction and thus should not be followed by a comma.


Subordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs are both cohesive devices but they are different parts of speech and thus they are used differently in sentences. Whilst they cause a lot of confusion for IELTS candidates, the rules for their use are actually quite simple. Mainly, you should remember this one rule:

Subordinating conjunctions begin dependent clauses and conjunctive adverbs begin independent clauses.

Once you can remember that, it will become much easier to get the rest correct and thereby increase your score for Coherence and Cohesion and Grammatical Range and Accuracy. You can see the IELTS band descriptors here for more information about these criteria.