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So….Let’s Talk about “So”

One of the most bewildering aspects of the English language, especially for non-native speakers, are all the tiny monosyllabic words packed with a load of meanings and a wide variety of possible usages: “to”, “for”, “as”, etc.  One of the trickiest on this list is the word “so”, which appears so frequently on the GMAT Sentence Correction that I decided to write this blog article, so as to alert you to the word’s many guises.

Some of the uses of “so” are restricted to colloquial use only (“That is so true!”, “I so am going to tell her!”), not accepted in formal English.  Other uses, while they are perfectly acceptable (“Leonardo was so talented.”), are not particularly difficult, and so, are not tested on the GMAT.  The focus here is on those uses most frequently tested on the GMAT SC.


Clauses of purpose

When we want a subordinate clause to indicate the purpose or intention of some action, that clause can begin with the words “so that” or “so as to”.  Here are a couple examples:

1) I went into town so that I could see Marcia before she left.
2) I went into town so as to see Marcia before she left.
Both of those are perfectly correct.  In this instance, the second is slightly shorter, so it would be marginally preferable, although the GMAT SC will never ask you to compare two constructions as similar as this.  Notice, the second form, “so as to”, is slightly more efficient when the actor in the independent clause is the same as the actor in the subordinate clause.  What if those two actors are different?

3) I lent Robert my car so that he could drive to town and see Marcia before she leaves.
4) I lent Robert my car so as to allow him to drive to town and see Marcia before she leaves.

Again, both are correct, although now the second construction sounds a bit too wordy and indirect.  Again, the GMAT SC will not have you compare two sentences this close.  The GMAT definitely does not like this variation at all:

The word “that”, or the words “as to”, are needed in this construction.  Sentence #5 could be an incorrect answer choice, compared to either #1 or #2 above.



The word “so” can be used as an adverb intensifying the degree of a noun.

6) Located on one of the most scenic stretches of the Onondaga River, the suburb of Aureum is so expensive.

Admittedly, this is a borderline colloquial usage not likely to appear on the GMAT.  The words “as … as” are used for comparisons.

7) Located on one of the most scenic stretches of the Onondaga River, the suburb of Aureum is as expensive as the most exclusive neighborhoods of Westchester County, north of New York City.

That comparison is 100% grammatically correct.  The problem comes when these two forms are conflated.

That is a classic mistake pattern for a comparison on the GMAT SC.  It’s all the more tempting because, as I will discuss below, the combination “so … as” is correct in an entirely different structure.  In a simple comparison of two nouns, the structure “as … as” is correct, and the structure “so … as” is always wrong.


Clause of consequence

Sometimes we specify the degree of an adjective (“so large”, “so far north”) simply for emphasis.  Sometimes, we construct a comparison (“as large as”, “as far north as”).  Sometimes, though, we underscore the degree of an adjective in order to discuss something that results from this.  One perfectly correct construction for this is the form: “so [adjective] that”.  For example,

9) Jupiter is so large that, if it were hollow, a thousand Earths could fit inside.

10) The city of Murmansk is so far north that it undergoes more than two full months of sunless darkness in the middle of winter.

Both of these are 100% grammatically correct, and either could be the correct answer on a GMAT SC question.  Another perfectly correct construction is the form: “so [adjective] as to” — this is the legitimate use of the “so … as” combination!  For example,

11) The hurricane was so powerful as to topple every telephone pole on Main St.

12) Mariano Rivera is so dominant a closer as to top the career rankings in Adjusted ERA+.

Again, perfectly correct, and either could be could be the correct answer on a GMAT SC question.  Be careful, though, not to confuse this completely correct use of “so … as” with the faulty comparison given in #8 above.


Further practice

The following questions in the OG13 feature some of these uses of “so”: SC #16, #35, #39, and #111.  Furthermore, here’s a Magoosh practice question.



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6 Responses to So….Let’s Talk about “So”

  1. Arun January 22, 2014 at 10:28 pm #


    Your posts are very helpful.

    Kindly explain why in the sentence 3 & 4 have comma between the clauses.

    1) I went into town so that I could see Marcia before she left.
    2) I went into town so as to see Marcia before she left.
    3) I lent Robert my car, so that he could drive to town and see Marcia before she leaves.
    4) I lent Robert my car, so as to allow him to drive to town and see Marcia before she leaves.


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike January 23, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      Great question! I discussed these sentences with Lucas, the SAT & TOEFL expert and resident authority on punctuation, and we agreed that sentences #3 & 4 were better without the commas, so I removed them. Great eye for detail, my friend. Thank you for pointing this out.
      Mike 🙂

  2. abhinav May 5, 2013 at 4:47 am #

    Hi Mike,

    My observation in the examples above under “clause of consequence”.
    “So [adj] that” – subject of the clause that follows that must be in pronoun form and that pronoun must be included in “that” clause.

    “So [adj] as to” – subject of the clause is not necessary to be mentioned in the clause that follows “to”.

    Could you please throw some light on this structure?

    it is very confusing at times.

    Also, in Magoosh sc question “The impasse that resulted” .

    subject is impasse a singular noun, but in the clause that follows “to”takes plural verb “require”?
    also does the verb takes to along with it to form an infinitive?

    Thank you!!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike May 5, 2013 at 10:04 am #

      Dear Abhinav,

      In the construction “so [adj] that”, the word “that” introduces a subordinate clause, which must have a full [noun]+[verb] structure — the subject could be a noun or a pronoun.

      By contrast, the the construction “so [adj] as to” introduces an infinitive phrase —- very different: an infinitive does not need to have a subject. See:

      Logically, these two constructions serve a similar purpose, but grammatically, they are quite different. Don’t confuse logical similarity with grammatical similarity.

      The word “that” is a very versatile word — in addition to the constructions discussed above, the word “that” can serve as a subordinate conjunction introducing a subordinate clause (“I know that he is coming”), in which case a subject (noun or pronoun) follows the word “that.” Also, the word “that” can itself be a pronoun and serve as the subject of the subordinate clause —- in “the impasse that resulted”, the word “that” is a pronoun and, inside the subordinate clause, it is the subject of the verb “resulted.”

      What follows the “to” in the infinitive is technically NOT the plural form but the infinitive form. For most regular verbs, the infinitive form (the form listed in any dictionary) is identical to the present tense plural, but they are difference. An infinitive is called an “infinitive” because it is “in” + finit” = “without limits” — the infinitive form is not limited by the ordinary verb restrictions of tense, number, mood, etc.

      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • abhinav May 5, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

        splendid mike!!
        Thanks a ton.

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike May 6, 2013 at 10:57 am #

          Dear Abhinav,
          You are quite welcome.
          Mike 🙂

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