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I have a sentence with a rather complex 'so that' subordinate clause that contains two clauses, each of which could stand alone as a complete sentence. I know the comma before 'so that' would be wrong, but should I use a comma between the two clauses within the 'so that' phrase? For example:

"For the experiment, the restriction enzymes were digested so that the inserts became larger and it was easier to see the final product."

or

"For the experiment, the restriction enzymes were digested so that the inserts became larger, and it was easier to see the final product."

The original sentence was far more complex than this; each clause had additional elements and/or parenthetical information, stretching the entire thing out over four lines of text. Arguably a comma would make the clauses easier to digest, kinda like the restriction enzymes, but I'm not so sure how strict the rule on omitting commas before essential subordinate clauses is and whether it stretches to additional clauses within.

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It sounds like you want both the inserts became larger and it was easier to see the final product to be reasons for (and consequences of) digesting the enzymes. In that case, I would leave the comma out.

If the comma is there, it seems more natural to interpret the sentence as:

… the restriction enzymes were digested so that the inserts became larger; therefore, it was easier to see the final product.

In other words, with the comma, the final it was easier to see the final product seems to depend on both parts of what came before: (digested enzymes, therefore larger inserts), therefore easier to see.

Regarding the more complex original sentence, I would avoid doing that. Neither being Charles Dickens nor writing for an audience like that for which Charles Dickens wrote, you stand in far worse danger of the readers losing track of your complex syntactical thread (no matter how perfectly it may follow the rules of grammar), which can only lead to frustration, confusion, and a general feeling that the time taken to peruse your article might well be better spent on other pursuits. (If you found that sentence hard to read, I trust I have made my point.)

There is almost never a good reason to make the reader struggle to parse a huge, complex sentence (except as an example of what not to do, as above). Far better to break it up into shorter, simpler, logically linked parts. Even this relatively simple example could benefit from that approach:

For the experiment, the restriction enzymes were digested. This caused the inserts to grow and made the final product easier to see.

Or:

For the experiment, the restriction enzymes were digested. This caused the inserts to grow, making it easier to see the final product.

  • Thanks for the tips! I'll leave the comma out. It's not my sentence; I'm just proofreading it. The additional information that makes the sentence more complex is part of a dissertation and presumably important. I'm not gonna rewrite someone's dissertation :-) – Timothy Bostick Apr 10 '17 at 10:21

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