The French have donc and alors; others have “like”; but the rest of the world — especially Americans, it seems — is determined to begin every spoken sentence with ‘’so.” The word is ubiquitous. It drives me mad. We even hear it spoken by intelligent politicians, broadcasters, and academics, especially when replying to a question. I am determined to reduce the frequency of its use, if not eliminate it entirely. But how?
When I was young I was taught that if you want to get rid of a habit, you need to repeat it until some part of you rebels. I was never convinced that this technique is sound, but it seemed worth a try.
So, you ask, why not? So, I reply, there seems to be no alternative. So, I continue, don’t you agree it is worth trying? So, I add, let me explain again why I thought this might work. So, it is like this: if you say something often enough, I would be more likely to pay attention to your views.
A further and better example, perhaps, is this familiar conversation after being introduced to someone. ‘So, Dr. Pless, what kind of doctor are you?” To which I might reply, “So, it’s hard to explain. So, when I was a resident I decided I wanted to do research… etc., etc.”
Snobbily, perhaps, I have been inclined to think of this sort of “so” only as a filled pause, similar to “um,” or “well.” But, given that all readers of this blog are scholarly, I wanted to be sure I was right. Accordingly (note: not ‘so’), I did some homework and checked with Google. To my astonishment I found several essays supporting the use of the word in this context. One of these was an opinion piece on NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast. (So, What’s The Big Deal With Starting A Sentence With ‘So’ September 3, 20151 Heard on Fresh Air)
The Fresh Air essay notes that “so” is a “conversational workhorse”. It announces a new topic, it connects causes to results, it sets up a joke. Geoff Nunberg, the author of the NPR essay claims that starting sentences with “so” isn’t a new trend. We are not doing it any more often than we were fifty years ago. The only difference is that back then nobody had much of a problem with it.
There is, however, hope for increasing company in my growing disdain. Nunberg acknowledges that “It’s the ‘so’ that you hear from people who can’t answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the backstory.” Apparently this tendency is especially favoured by nerds and techies. Nunberg adds that “By now that backstory ‘so’ is endemic among members of the explaining classes…” He writes that a psychologist has called it “a weasel word that people use to avoid giving a straight answer.”
Another wit writing in Grammar Book.com concludes his lengthy explanation of when, where and how the word can be properly used with the following: “Putting these thoughts and guidelines into practice should help us rein in runaway so’s in formal writing, so let’s commit to doing so, shall we?”
Incidentally, Dictionary.com informs us that “In English, the word ‘so’ is highly polysemous. In case you don’t know what that term means (I did not), it refers to the fact that “so” can play several grammatical roles: as an adverb, a conjunction, a pronoun, an interjection, or an adjective. In the context under discussion in this blog, it might act as a coordinating conjunction if the connection were genuinely grammatical. To my ear, it rarely is.
But there is a downside to this tirade: Ever since I started writing this I found myself using the dreaded word repeatedly at the beginning of sentences. It is infectious! Beware!!
While we are at it, can we please do something about “you know”? Nowadays, far too many conversations are laced with this meaningless phrase, to which most of the time, if I were in the mood to respond, I would shout, “NO! I DO NOT KNOW!”
Maybe I’m being greedy and asking too much. Reluctantly, I will settle for banning either one of these irritants and take up my cudgel against whichever remains at some later date.