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Example with nonsensical language, but relevant syntax:

The authors have emphasized (a) how to study the skrill, (b) where to chip the transom and (c) how children ask questions, in order to illustrate the problem.

I understand that, as in my title question, there is generally no comma before a subordinating conjunction like in order to. However, without a comma here, the subordinate clause would be ambiguous as to whether it was subordinate to "The authors have emphasized..." or "(c) how children ask questions." Is it thus acceptable?

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The answer to your question is 'yes'. Clarity should always take precedence over slavish adherence to rules that may or may not have a reasonable justification. (In other words, the precise context should be paramount when deciding on whether a given convention ought to be followed.)

However, if you suspect that your readers might object to your usage of the comma here, you could reorder the clauses as follows and thereby skirt the issue entirely:

In order to illustrate the problem, the authors have emphasized (a) how to study the skrill, (b) where to chip the transom[,] and (c) how children ask questions.

The comma I inserted after transom is optional.

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  • Thank you, Erik! I'd like to vote up your answer, but that requires a higher reputation than I, as a complete newcomer, have.
    – Eddinger
    Dec 15 '14 at 0:51
  • @Eddinger - No worries. I was glad to be able to help. :)
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 15 '14 at 0:53
  • I'll upvote. It's cheaper than posting you a pack of mince pies. Dec 15 '14 at 3:51
  • @Edwin - Thank you. (But you could email me the recipe for nothing. :)
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 15 '14 at 3:54

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