So…?

Today’s Zippy features Mr. the Toad, moving during the day to his default personality: seized by rage and a sense of entitlement and issuing sweeping pronouncements, including one on grammar:

Every so often, there’s a fresh wave of complaints about beginning sentences with so, along with speculations about why people do it and where it started. Mr. the Toad forgoes all that in favor of trying to wipe the practice out.

Two recent expressions of Toad-like annoyance at sentence-initial so:

from a blog commenter “Coastal Tiger”, in Louisiana, on 4/27/15:

When did everyone begin starting sentence with, “So…

….watching Baltimore police chief say it quite frequently. Very aggravating!

At greater length, from the blog of Simon O’Hare, in Leeds, on 11/29/13:

Starting a sentence with So – why did it catch on?

It’s all the rage, starting sentences with the word So.

I see Radio 4’s Today programme covered it back in 2011, noting it seems particularly common among scientist types. Other than that, they were at a loss about its origins.

So. I’ve got two kind-of theories about this bizarre trend entirely plucked out of thin air. One about the reason people started to do it and the other about where it started.

I think people often do it in a bid to convey authority, to take the senior role in a conversation. Maybe this explains the scientists thing and it’d also fit in with the fact I’ve noticed politicians doing it quite a lot

… I wonder if it started on social media, where it might make more sense to use the word So at the start of tweets, blogposts and so on to make your writing seem informal and most importantly to give it a feel of continuity.

A familiar scenario. You notice some usage that annoys you and seems to be extraordinarily frequent (everyone’s doing it; it’s all the rage) — moreover, it seems to you to have become frequent only recently. You cast about for a source of this change, and you fix upon the only things you’ve got to go on, the people who used it and the contexts they used it in, so you speculate about why they used it there.

This is the way ordinary people think about linguistic usages. It’s all subjective, and dangerously so. It’s based on the accidents of individual experience, on selective attention, and on unexamined assumptions about groups of people and their motivations. But ordinary people don’t have the resources to examine proposals about frequency, recency, origin, and discourse function. That’s where linguists come in.

For sentence-initial so, start with a Language Log posting by Mark Liberman, “So new?”, on 8/22/10. Some initial highlights:

David Craig asked whether Anand Giridharadas is suffering from the Recency Illusion in his small piece on “so” (Follow My Logic? A Connective Word Takes the Lead, NYT 5/21/2010), which observes that

“So” may be the new “well,” “um,” “oh” and “like.” No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight. […]

… What is new is its status as the favored introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of “well,” “oh,” “um” and their ilk.

So it is widely believed that the recent ascendancy of “so” began in Silicon Valley.

…he cites a linguist, Galina Bolden, and links to one of several papers that she’s written on the subject (“Implementing incipient actions: The discourse marker ‘so’ in English conversation”, Journal of Pragmatics 41:974–998, 2009).

First, we have to note that there are huge numbers of occurrences of  sentence-initial so that have nothing to do with the topic under discussion here, which has to do with sentence-initial connective or discourse-marker so (for instance, So many people turned up that we couldn’t seat all of them is entirely irrelevant). Then, we have to realize that there are a great many different uses of sentence-initial connective so. (You might not have thought of Yinglish uses, as in So, nu?, but Mark Liberman did; see the title of his posting.)

At this point, we realize that there’s a huge research topic here, and that even collecting fortuitous examples won’t cut it, though it’s a start.

Mark’s brief (and relatively crude) forays into looking at the historical record statistically suggest that that sentence-initial connective so is not at all recent, though it did rise in frequency during the 20th century, but now seems to have leveled off.

As with many usage attitudes, the strong antipathy many people have to these uses of so is hard to explain. Baffling to me, in fact, but then I’ve known, since the days when I first reflected, as a linguist, on my own usages, that I use many of them. I also recall admiring (back in the 60s and 70s) Jim McCawley’s use of discourse-initial so, at the very beginning of his talks.

One Response to “So…?”

  1. Andy Sleeper Says:

    I recall listening to a Buddhist speaker who invariably began his talks with “So.” I was annoyed by its meaninglessness, until I realized it serves as punctuation, providing a clear line between non-talk and talk. In spoken English, it serves a function, like a softer version of “Hey!” or “Lo!”

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