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Wie es aussieht, hatte er ...

The conjunction wie in the subordinate clause causes the subject-verb inversion in the main clause.

So wie es aussieht, hatte er ...

But how about when so precedes wie? I wonder if it is the adverbial phrase "So wie es aussieht" as a whole (rather than the conjunction wie) that necessitates the subject-verb inversion in this case?

Also, how do these two different phrases differ in meaning, if at all? Is it simply interchangeable?

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At this place, so has a demonstrative function.

Wie es aussieht, gibt es gleich Mittag.

How it looks like, we will have lunch soon.

So sieht es aus: Es gibt gleich Mittag.

This is how it looks like: we will have lunch soon.

So wie es aussieht, gibt es gleich Mittag.

This is how it looks like, we will have lunch soon.

I'd say it's a particle here because it essentially means the same as the phrase without so but changes the mood. The difference is very subtle.

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You can in many cases have a demonstrative pronoun before a relative sentence in German. So, if you want to say "It's hot where I come from.", you might say either of the two:

"Wo ich herkomme, ist es heiß." "Dort, wo ich herkomme, ist es heiß."

Or if you want to say "What I like best about strawberries is their colour.", you can say both:

"Was ich an Erdbeeren am liebsten mag, ist ihre Farbe." "Das, was ich an Erdbeeren am liebsten mag, ist ihre Farbe."

It's the same with "Wie es aussieht" and "So wie es aussieht", except that the Duden for some reason (and inconsistently) doesn't require a comma in it.

The meaning is basically the same, but the cases with a demonstrative sound a bit less like written language and more like spoken language to me. That might vary with where people come from though.

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