What are Conjunctive Adverbs and How to Punctuate Them?

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Consider these sentences:

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. However, nothing much seems to have changed here.

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. Nothing much, however, seems to have changed here.

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. Nothing much seems to have changed here, however.

Some resign to the fact that they can’t succeed however hard they try.

After couple of hours, I thought how silly it would have been to write that email. I instead walked over to my colleague and resolved the issue.

Note: Adverbs in all examples have been underlined.

In the first three, however moves around in the sentence along with its dutiful bodyguards, the commas. But not in the fourth. The fifth is alike second but doesn’t take commas.

Confusing? In this post, we’ll address why this happens and, in the process, learn a new tool for connecting sentences.

Before we start, let’s pictorially see where do conjunctive adverbs belong in the adverb family:

Conjunctive adverb

(Feel free to use this image for own use, using the above link for attribution.)

In this post, we’re covering the second column of the above image. Explore the other two in the adverb family:

What are conjunctive adverbs?

Conjunctive adverbs, also called adverbial conjunctions or conjunct adverbs, build logical connection between two independent clauses or sentences. Example:

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. However, nothing much seems to have changed here.

Here, the conjunctive adverb However builds the bridge of contrast between the two sentences. The sentence it heads stands in contrast to the first sentence. In a way, a conjunctive adverb adds more to the previous sentence, taking it to logical conclusion.

In the above example, a conjunctive adverb connected two sentences. It can also connect two independent clauses separated by a semicolon.

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city; however, nothing much seems to have changed here.

If you recall, semicolons are used to join two closely related independent clauses. By building a logical connect between two independent clauses, a conjunctive adverb makes them closely related, making them a natural fit for use of semicolon.

(From here on, whenever conjunctive adverb is referred to as connecting two sentences, it would also include connecting two independent clauses.)

The term conjunctive adverb consists of conjunctive and adverb, and not surprisingly they show some properties of both conjunctions and adverbs. Like conjunctions, they connect independent clauses and sentences. And like some adverbs, they modify an entire clause and occupy multiple positions in a sentence. They’re though not exactly like conjunctions and adverbs. More on this later in the post.

Different conjunctive adverbs show different types of connection between sentences. Some common conjunctive adverbs are accordingly, also, besides, certainly, consequently, finally, furthermore, hence, however, in addition, incidentally, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, now, otherwise, similarly, still, then, thereafter, therefore, and thus.

See a longer list of conjunctive adverbs:

Placement (and punctuation) of conjunctive adverbs in a sentence

As we saw, a conjunctive adverb can connect two sentences or independent clauses. When connecting clauses, a semicolon is used between the clauses. That’s the first layer of punctuation associated with conjunctive adverbs.

Now, a conjunctive adverb can normally occupy more than one position in a sentence, sometimes requiring commas around it and sometimes not. That’s the second layer of punctuation associated with conjunctive adverbs. Let’s dive into this. Note that these comma rules hold whether the conjunctive adverb connects two sentences or two clauses.

1. Conjunctive adverb starting a sentence or clause

A conjunctive adverb mostly comes at the start of a sentence, and, in this position, it is always followed by a comma.

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. However, nothing much seems to have changed here.

2. Conjunctive adverb falling in the middle or end of a sentence or clause

A conjunctive adverb though doesn’t need to be in the front position to connect two sentences. It can come in the middle or at the end of a sentence. In these positions though, it may or may not take a comma. If it causes interruption in the flow of a sentence, it requires comma, but if it causes only a weak interruption, it doesn’t require any. Note that a pair of commas is required if the conjunctive adverb falls in the middle and a single comma if it comes at the end.

(Note: comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. Nothing much, however, seems to have changed here.

Several infrastructure projects have been launched in the city. Nothing much seems to have changed here, however.

After couple of hours, I thought how silly it would have been to write that email. I instead walked over to my colleague and resolved the issue. [Comment: Weak interruption and hence no comma]

Combining sentences or clauses through coordinating conjunctions

Conjunctive adverbs connect two sentences. Can we not join them using coordinating conjunctions like we do regular sentences? Let’s take these two sentences.

I don’t think we need that many resources. Therefore, we should cut down the number.

We can use commas in two ways when joining them using a coordinating conjunction.

I don’t think we need that many resources, and, therefore, we should cut down the number. [Too many commas in quick succession. Not preferred]

I don’t think we need that many resources, and therefore we should cut down the number. [Preferred]

Both are fine as far as punctuation is concerned but second is preferred because of fewer commas. If the conjunctive adverb falls in the middle of the second sentence though, you should retain its comma, if any.

Since both the independent clauses have a common subject we, you can drop it and remove the comma.

I don’t think we need that many resources and therefore should cut down the number.

This is exactly the same we do in sentences combined with coordinating conjunctions.

He lifted the heavy barbell successfully, but he hurt his back in the process.

He lifted the heavy barbell successfully but hurt his back in the process. [Because the two clauses have the same subject he, one of them has been chopped along with the comma.]

That’s how you get sentences like these:

Studies have found that most of these schools function outside all regulations and hence have no obligation to maintain minimum standards. The New York Times [most of these schools is the common subject]

She never comes into clear focus, but nonetheless we feel her effect on him. The Washington Post [Subjects are different]

More examples:

They come from the very people they represent, and hence their quality will be reflective of the quality of people.

If you work only on regular projects, you won’t be challenged and hence not become better at what you do.

I hadn’t yet spoken in the meeting and therefore jumped in when I got a chance.

An error to watch out for

Do you see problem with these sentences?

We got wet in the rain, thus we had to change clothes.

You want to go out tonight, however I want to stay home and watch TV.

They’ve been punctuated incorrectly, resulting in one of the most common run-on sentence errors. This is a common mistake students make.

The above sentences have been punctuated like we punctuate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. But you can’t because thus and however aren’t coordinating conjunctions. They’re conjunctive adverbs, and, as discussed earlier, they follow different punctuation rules.

I’ve also seen people punctuating like above, thinking that thus and however are subordinating conjunctions and therefore should be punctuated like this sentence.

I missed the train, because I got caught in the traffic.

Although there shouldn’t be a comma in the above sentence, some do use and extend the same rule to conjunctive adverbs.

But a conjunctive adverb is neither a coordinating nor a subordinating conjunction.

How to avoid this error?

A simple way is to know the list of at least the common conjunctive adverbs. That way, whenever you see them, you know you’ve to punctuate them differently.

A simpler way is to separate conjunctive adverbs from coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions.

First things first, there is absolutely no excuse for you to mix conjunctive adverbs with coordinating conjunctions because coordinating conjunctions are so few and so easy to remember (FANBOYS).

The list of subordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs though are relatively long, but they can be identified from each other through a quick, easy test. And once you identify them, you can punctuate them in their separate ways.

Test 1: subordinating conjunction vs. conjunctive adverb

A subordinate clause can almost always occupy front as well as end position in a sentence without distorting the sentence. However, the independent clause with conjunctive adverb can’t be moved to the front. Let’s try this test with few sentences.

We got wet in the rain thus we had to change clothes.

We got wet in the rain because we weren’t dressed appropriately.

Note that both the sentences have been punctuated assuming that thus and because are subordinating conjunctions. We’ll use the test to find out if this assumption is correct. (You can very well put a comma before them, and the test’s result will be the same.) Bringing the ‘dependent’ clause to the front position:

Thus we had to change clothes, we got wet in the rain.

Because we weren’t dressed appropriately, we got wet in the rain.

The first sentence doesn’t make any sense. The second does. This means thus isn’t a subordinating conjunction.

When punctuated correctly, the above sentences would be:

We got wet in the rain. Thus, we had to change clothes.

We got wet in the rain; thus, we had to change clothes.

We got wet in the rain because we weren’t dressed appropriately.

Test 2: subordinating conjunction vs. conjunctive adverb

As we saw earlier, a conjunctive adverb can occupy multiple positions in its sentence. But a subordinating conjunction must occupy the front position in its clause. So, you can try to put the word in multiple positions. If it works, then it’s a conjunctive adverb. Otherwise, it’s a subordinating conjunction.

Conjunctive adverb vs. regular adverb

Conjunctive adverbs are different from regular adverbs.

Conjunctive adverbs show logical relationship between two sentences while modifying an entire sentence. Regular adverbs, on the other hand, answer adverbial questions when, where, in what manner, to what degree, and how frequently in a sentence to provide background information. They modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs in the sentence. Example:

Recently I moved to a new house. [Regular adverb. It answers the adverbial question when while modifying the verb moved.]

I finished my dinner. Thereafter, I went for a walk. [Conjunctive adverb. It logically connects the two sentences while modifying its sentence.]

Some conjunctive adverbs can also function as regular adverbs. Here are few examples. (Note that you need the preceding sentence as well to fully understand the sentence with conjunctive adverb.)

Thereafter, I went for a walk. [Conjunctive adverb]

Maybe they help land the first job but not much thereafter. [Regular adverb]

You can’t get your work done otherwise. [Conjunctive adverb. Conjunctive adverbs can occupy the end position as well.]

During the pandemic, people suffered financially or otherwise. [Regular adverb]

However, nothing much has changed here in the last ten years. [Conjunctive adverb]

Some resign to the fact that they can’t succeed however hard they try. [Regular adverb]

Conjunctive adverb vs. conjunction

Conjunctive adverb vs. coordinating conjunction

On the surface, conjunctive adverbs and coordinating conjunctions look similar. Both join independent clauses, expressing multitude of relationships between the two clauses. Some of the relationships they express in fact overlap: and and moreover express relationship of addition, so and therefore express relationship of reason, and but and however express relationship of contrast.

But conjunctive adverbs are not coordinating conjunctions.

First, whereas a conjunctive adverb expresses relationship between two independent clauses or sentences without linking them, a coordinating conjunction does the same by linking two independent clauses. A conjunctive adverb merely advances (or connects) the idea of the first sentence to the second. That’s why, in this post, the term join or link has been used with conjunctions and connect with conjunctive adverbs.

Second, as we saw earlier in the post, conjunctive adverbs are usually quite mobile within a sentence. Coordinating conjunctions, in contrast, are positionally fixed.

Third, a conjunctive adverb can express the relationship in one sentence (through use of semicolon) or two. But a coordinating conjunction can do the same in only one sentence, separating two independent clauses by a comma and coordinating conjunction.

Fourth, conjunctive adverbs are far greater in number and hence can express wider range of relationships.

Conjunctive adverb vs. subordinating conjunction

They’re quite different. Whereas conjunctive adverbs connect two independent clauses or sentences, subordinating conjunctions join a dependent and an independent clause.

How conjunctive adverbs help your writing?

First, conjunctive adverbs move your writing forward by connecting a sentence to the next through logical relationship between the two. That’s why writers commonly use them as a tool of transition between sentences. They act as signpost in your writing, telling readers in advance that the next sentence provides addition (furthermore, in addition, etc.), reason (therefore, thus, etc.), contrast (however, on the other hand, etc.), or something else.

They cover a much wider range of relationships than coordinating conjunctions, another tool to link independent clauses.

Second, as we saw, punctuation around conjunctive adverbs isn’t straightforward. Learning it will help you avoid embarrassing punctuation mistakes.

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