so (that)

A sideline in an investigation of “optional that“– that is, variation between that and ∅ — that I’ll post more on in a little while: so that vs. so as conjunctions. I have a bit of personal history with this variation.

From MWDEU, p. 856:

Except for repeated complaint in schoolbooks and college handbooks that so is overused as a connective, opinion about conjunctional so is divided. Some critics tell us that so that should be used instead of so in both clauses of result and clauses of purpose [AMZ: I was taught this in grade school: I was told that plain so was too informal for careful writing — it was marked as a writing error —  and always had to be expanded to the “correct” so that]; others think that so is all right to introduce clauses of result but that so that should be used for clauses of purpose; and still others find so all right in both uses but so that more formal. [AMZ: several copyeditors have insisted on editing all occurrences of so that to so]

… In spite of what the usage books say about so that being the more appropriate in formal prose, however, we do not find much difference in level of formality between so and so that in our most recently collected evidence.

MWDEU provides examples of result and purpose clauses with so that and with plain so. Here’s a result so that from text that is formal in tone and a purpose so that from more vernacular text:

Result: Rarely here is one more than a few miles from a great brackish tideland stream …, so that what is specfically Southern becomes commingled with the waterborne, the maritime. (William Styron)

Purpose: Just be sure you’ve got the guts. So that if you have to steal or take a sap to someone’s head for a meal, you’ll be able to. (E. L. Doctorow)

Either of these could have been framed with plain so. MWDEU‘s position here is that the alternatives are simply variants, which people can choose for any reason (style, prosody, whatever) or for no reason they are conscious of. That’s now my position too, after having been whipsawed by people who present themselves as authorities in possession of the One Right Way.

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