IVP - Addenda & Errata - A Mid-Summer’s Rant: So Why Are We Beginning Our Discourses with “So”?

July 28, 2008

A Mid-Summer’s Rant: So Why Are We Beginning Our Discourses with “So”?

My wife works in a big law firm in Seattle where she hangs out with all sorts of smart, hip people. There she unconsciously picks up speech patterns, like lint on velcro, and brings them home to my linguistically antiseptic telecommuting laboratory for my dissection. I first noticed this beginning-discourse-with-“so” phenomenon in my wife, perhaps a couple of years ago.

This verbal tic finally got to me, and I did a Google search on beginning sentences with “so.” I thought I was on to something when I found a discussion thread from within the sacred walls of Microsoft, just to my north. It was bugging a Microsofty, and he was discussing it with others of his tribe. So, I thought (using the word so in a more standardized way), that’s the source of this evil, insidious speech habit. But the comment thread was dated to 2004, which meant that if it was more widespread at that time, I’d slept through a couple years of it at least. Oh well.

Just a few days ago a neighbor’s kid came to my door and said, “Hi. So we’re going to Washington, D.C., and we were wondering if you could keep an eye on our house while we’re gone.” That’s a perfect instance of this creeping "so,” I said to myself. It sounds to me as though there’s a conversation that I’m just dropping into, having missed the first part of something or other that this coordinating conjunction is conjoining. Now, despite being an editor, I’m not really a linguistic purist, so the pinched English teacher’s rule of not beginning sentences with “and” or “but” doesn’t register with me. However, with this initializing so I feel like I’m parachuting into the middle of things when I thought I was in on the beginning of things. Maybe it's intended to make me feel like I'm part of an extended conversation, but if so, it's not working.

Notice that the usage I’m citing here is different from “So, dude, what’s up?” It’s not different, you say? Believe me, it’s different. For one thing, it’s not used just in slang anymore. We now have people in suits or business casual beginning formal talks, addressing an audience—from a dead-cold stop—with “So this morning we are announcing the second-quarter profits of the Boeing Corporation.” Or I can now imagine the announcement breaking into regular radio programming, “So we are now under attack by North Korean ballistic missiles.” So I want to know, what’s going on with the so, and how did we come to this pass? I’m steeling myself for the first time I hear, “So I baptize you in the name . . .” or “So Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”

Surely there are linguists out there who have been studying this. What’s its source and trajectory? Why is it now so prevalent? I observe that the longer this goes on, the more I find myself obsessing over it and so even doing it myself. Llike the rising intonation thing, it's, like, so annoying?

So let’s all stand in a circle, join hands and promise not to do this anymore. So who's with me?

Posted by Dan Reid at July 28, 2008 11:52 AM Bookmark and Share

Comments

Dan - The "so ... then" construction has been noted as a regional idiom in the Midwest and especially Minnesota. The book How to Talk Minnesotan came out some years ago and described this "so ... then" pattern. And I think it's a form of being a little more casual and indirect in an ask. Instead of declaring, "Let's go to the store," someone will ask, "So, do you want to go to the store then?"

It's not just used in making requests, but also in narrative retellings of events. Maybe it's kind of like the Hebrew use of "and" at the beginning of every sentence of narrative. I remember in Hebrew class slavishly translating every "and" in a passage until we became accustomed to the style, and we eventually ignored it entirely. The "so" probably functions the same way - it's a signal that a narrative is about to be recounted, and it's largely ignored by those within the linguistic subculture.

I just Googled this to see if I could find anything more official, and I turned up this comment in an Amazon review of How to Talk Minnesotan: "So, what gave you the idea that we talk like that then."

Comment by: Al Hsu at August 1, 2008 7:36 AM

So you think it has a Minnesotan provenance then? Very interesting!

Nevertheless, I want to maintain that something new is in the air. Yesterday I caught an instance of a version that I've been hearing with increasing frequency. An NPR interviewer asks a question. The interviewee responds (from a dead stop), "So [declarative sentence]." I wish I could quote it; it would be more compelling.

Dan

Comment by: Dan Reid at August 1, 2008 8:15 AM

So I too have noticed this "so" phenomenon, especially since we've moved to the pacific northwest. I noticed it so much (pun intended), in fact, that I started to think perhaps I was terribly uncool for NOT starting my sentences with "so," as if it were some sign of being in the know. So, I actually started purposely putting "so" in front of my sentences for a while. It made me feel culturally in tune somehow. However the grammar teacher inside of my head was uncomfortable with the usage, and after a while I naturally discontinued it, apparently to the betterment of my own communication habits and the english language as a whole. So. . . thanks for this post--very interesting.

Comment by: Rebecca at August 14, 2008 6:14 PM

My completely anecdotally-supported theory on this phenomenon is that "so" is the intellectual's equivalent to "um" (or "ah"). Instead of "Um, I think we should try shortening the length of our books to appeal to a larger audience" or "Ah, let's move on to the next topic on the agenda," we now get "So, I think we should try . . ." and "So, let's move on . . ."--you get the idea.

The trend may have been sparked in Minnesota or the Midwest as Al suggests in his comment, but I have only heard "so" used without the paired "then" and only in sentences where "um" or "ah" would have previously sufficed--had the speaker not been at pains to avoid that common mistake.

So, "so" is the smart "um," I think.

Comment by: Sally Craft at November 3, 2008 4:11 PM

Coming from Illinois, I had assumed that the "so" phenomenon was of Californian origin, similar to the rising intonation problem (e.g., Valley Girl speech pattern). This assumption had been reinforced by its prevalence in the speech of personnel located at our company's California headquarters. Alas, the "so" virus is now sufficiently widespread as to make tracing its origin nearly impossible.

Regardless of origin, however, I believe it can only be erradicated by bringing its nonsensical nature to the attention of those who unconsciously utter it.

Comment by: Laura at January 5, 2009 1:36 PM

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