Sunday, July 14, 2019

So, I got curious about something

There’s a small word that infuriates some people, but it’s also quite common: The word so has become ubiquitous, and not just for its normal function as a conjunction. Lately, it seems some speakers use it a lot. So, what’s that all about?

I recently listened to a podcast and the interview subject began every answer with so. Since then, I’ve become aware of how often people do that. Not surprising, probably, I noticed that most of the people who do that don’t answer questions as part of the normal lives. However, even politicians, who ought to be good at being interviewed, do it a lot, too.

The word is usually referred to as a coordinating_conjunction, that is, words that, as Wikipedia puts it, “join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance.” They point out that the words can be remembered as the acronym FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So.

That’s what the word is, but doesn’t even touch on why it ends up in as a “sentence opener”. Wikipedia says that the use of so as a sentence opener is VERY old, dating back (at least) to Chaucer in the 14th Century. They also list several theories as to why the word is used this way, each with its own merits:

As a coordinating conjunctive to refer backwards to something previously mentioned. This is common enough, and one I use the most. In my case, I could substitute something like “to sum up” at the start of a sentence, though that’s more stilted than my natural speech pattern.

As a discourse marker. This is the usage I hear the most often, and is rhetorically similar to people saying “you know”—that is, it doesn’t change the meaning of anything being said, but provides a verbal link. I sometimes use it this way in spoken speech, but very rarely in anything written.

To signal that the following words are chosen for their relevance to the listener. This usage infuriates some people. For example, back in 2014 Fast Company published a piece called “How A Popular Two-Letter Word Is Undermining Your Credibility” by Hunter Thurman. In it, he declares that using the word to open a sentence “insults your audience”, it “undermines your credibility”, and that it “demonstrates that you’re not 100% comfortable with what you’re saying”. So, that seems a bit harsh.

To provide a small amount of extra thinking time. To me, this seems like the best explanation most of the time. It’s very similar to a discourse marker, but completely devoid of any actual meaning. This usage is actually most similar to saying “um”—a mere sound, giving the speaker a brief time to get their thoughts in order, to remember the answer to a question, and so on. This can be as annoying as when people say “um” a lot, but it’s pretty harmless.

All of that explains what the word so is and how it’s used, however, none of that really answers why people seem to be using it more these days. Back in 2015, npr offered a possible explanation:
So, why the recent hue and cry about those sentences beginning with "so"? In part, you could blame the quirk of perception I think of as the Andy Rooney effect, where you suddenly become keenly aware of a common word that's always been part of the conversational wallpaper. Somebody says, "Have you noticed how everybody's saying 'OK' before they hang up the phone?" and all at once the word starts jumping out at you, even though people have been using it that way forever.
The npr piece talks about other explanations for the origins of the current usage, and ways in which it’s typically used.

Overall, I tend to agree that it’s not really new or used being used more extensively now than in the past, and that we just sometimes notice things more frequently than we used to—like I did when an interviewee on a podcast began every answer with so.

So, to sum up, I now know a lot more about so than I need to, but my curiosity has been satisfied. Isn’t that one of the main reasons for having the Internet?

So, that’s it for this look at so.

So is also the name of a hit 1986 album by Peter Gabriel. The album cover is up above.

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