Helpful Tips for Using Coordinating Conjunctions: Or, Nor, For and So
There are seven coordinating conjunctions in the English language. Alphabetically, and in full capitals for clarity here, they are AND, BUT, FOR, OR, NOR, SO, and YET. As their name implies, coordinating conjunctions join two or more clauses, phrases or words and lay equal emphasis and equal syntactic importance on each of the joined elements. They are essential when writing formal prose of a scholarly standard and can help academic and scientific authors describe their research and construct their arguments with complexity, subtlety and momentum. I have written about AND, BUT and YET in another article, so here I would like to offer some basic guidance on the use of OR, NOR, FOR and SO.
OR joins clauses, phrases and words to express alternatives or choices. It is often used in combination with ‘either’ or ‘whether,’ as it is in ‘Either his assistant or his student would be happy to do the work’ and ‘The professor could not decide whether to proofread again or to submit the paper as it was.’ OR can be used in series as well, but instead of adding items as AND does, it expresses alternatives: ‘He could edit the paper himself, submit it as it was or ask his assistant to do the work.’ Whereas AND constructions in series are plural in nature, OR constructions, including ‘whether…or’ and ‘either…or,’ are singular and take a singular verb. ‘Either the author or the editor is to blame’ is therefore right, whereas ‘Either the author or the editor are to blame’ is wrong and requires correction.
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NOR is similar to OR, but it expresses a negative alternative to a negative idea that has already been introduced. This is why it is so commonly used along with ‘neither,’ as it is in ‘Neither his research assistant nor his favourite proofreader is available to edit the paper.’ NOR can also be used to continue the force of a negative stated in a preceding clause, so it is frequently used in constructions such as ‘He did not have time to proofread, nor did he wish to make the time.’ It is sometimes used after a positive statement in an ‘and not’ sort of construction: ‘They are gone, nor will we find them,’ which means ‘They are gone, and we will not find them.’ In these last two constructions, a comma precedes NOR, and a semicolon is sometimes a valid alternative. Notice that NOR, like OR, expresses a singular concept, so it is used with a singular verb: ‘Neither his research assistant nor his favourite proofreader is available to edit the paper” uses the singular ‘is,’ not the plural ‘are.’
FOR expresses reason or purpose, so when it joins two independent clauses, the second clause explains the reason or offers a purpose for whatever is described in the first clause. ‘The professor asked his assistant to check the paper, for he was certain that he had neglected to follow some of the publisher guidelines.’ As a conjunction, FOR should be preceded by a comma to avoid confusion with its many uses as a preposition.
SO as a conjunction expresses effect, including purposes, results and consequences, in the clause it joins to another. ‘The paper was rejected by the acquisitions editor, so now the author will have to correct it’ is a good example. It is often used along with ‘that’ to express purpose or result, as in ‘He should have proofread carefully, so that all the mistakes were caught and corrected’ or ‘We analysed our results immediately so that the details would be fresh in our minds.’ As these examples show, a comma is often used before SO and should certainly be used to ensure clarity, but in many cases it may not be necessary.
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