And-but-or-nor-for-yet-so! And-but-or-nor-for-yet-so! And-but-or-nor-for-yet-so!

That outburst of coordinating conjunctions reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 film, The Shining. Ever seen it? In the movie, as Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) struggles to write his novel, he types the sentence “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and he does this thousands of times until it fills a ream of paper. My sense is that the horror of the blank page, the writer’s greatest fear, probably got the better part of ol’ Jack. Of course, trying to overcome writer’s block in a deserted resort infested with malevolent spirits no doubt pitched in with the assist.

My version of Jack’s “All work and no play…” is “And-but-or-nor-for-yet-so!” And as I was struggling to write this week’s Grammar Snack about correct usage of “so” and “so that,” the “Chorus of the Coordinating Conjunction,” which my freshman English teacher made his students memorize and chant, started ringing ominously in my empty skull. “And-but-or-nor-for-yet-so!” I was tempted to fill an entire screen with it, but thought better of it.

So, as stated above, today’s topic deals with “so” and “so that,” specifically their role within a sentence to connect two clauses. We’ll learn how to distinguish the two, which one requires punctuation, and more.

So: The coordinator
As you may already know or at least have gleaned from chorus above, “so” is a coordinating conjunction, the go-between linking two independent clauses (a.k.a. sentences). More than that and unlike, say, other coordinating conjunctions (Hey, “And,” I’m talking to you!), “so” signals a response or reaction to a thought or action expressed in the first clause. For example:

Jack drank all the coffee, so Wendy made more.
Jack drank all the coffee, so Wendy instructed him to make more.
Jack worked all day without play, so he was a dull boy.

So that: The subordinate
“So that” doesn’t link two independent clauses—it doesn’t signal a response or a reaction. Instead, it functions as a subordinate clause, providing an explanation or showing the result or consequence of the action expressed in the primary clause. Think of the “so that” subordinate clause as the “effect” to the primary clause’s “cause.” For example:

Jack quit working all day so that he could play more and be less of a dull boy.
Walter ordered more color toner so that our printed emails would look prettier in the recycling bin.

So, comma or what?
You probably learned long ago that when you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you stick a comma before that coordinator. So, when using “so” as a coordinating conjunction, place a comma before it. Refer to the first set of examples above.

“So that” is different, of course, because the phrase it attaches to isn’t an independent clause—it can’t stand on its own; it’s beholden to the primary clause. Therefore, no comma necessary.

Here’s where things get tricky. Writers who mean to say “so that” often kick “that” to the curb and use just “so” for the sake of brevity. This is not incorrect, but it can cause confusion when it comes to punctuation. If you fashion a sentence in this way—using the truncated “so” for “so that”—you don’t need to stick a comma between the two clauses. Just make sure you actually mean to write “so that.”

Hopefully, you have found this post more informative and helpful than a screen full of “And-but-or-nor-for-yet-so!” Too bad Jack Torrance never lived to publish his book, because the Chorus of the Coordinating Conjunction would have made a worthy sequel.

Joe Ehrbar is a senior editor at SMITH.


Tags: grammar, Strategy and Intelligence