Origins of using "so" as a sentence opener

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129 Responses to “Origins of using "so" as a sentence opener”

  1. unklstuart says:

    I often hear this starting a response to a question on Science Friday from young scientists. It can sound like they think the asker doesn’t understand their own question.

  2. FutureNerd says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the following flavor of “so”:

    “I’ve been on vacation for a couple weeks. What’s up with the traffic barriers across Rt. 128?”

    (pause) “So, you remember the oil spill off Louisiana? So, it spread and drifted for a couple weeks and finally some photographer on the North Shore throws this lighted cigarette off a patrol boat, um, and the rest is history, at least the North Shore is.”

    In other words, this “so” is what you say after you’ve mentally prepared to answer a complicated question. Notice the second “so” in the paragraph above means, “Good, you understand that piece of context. Now…” Sometimes it’s, “…Okay! so…” As if to say, “I acknowledge the question! Now how to answer it?”

    I don’t hear this as arrogant, more like an admission that one has had a hard time deciding where to start. Or like a self-prompt, as if one has formed a mental picture and the “so” means, “I guess the way to describe it is…” It’s a connective to something internal.

    Or like someone might mumble while following an assembly diagram: “So, I can’t use the lug nuts to attach the encabulator because there’s only five of them. So that means they must be for the… frammistat. So which one has to go on first…”

    “So what?” means, “What follows from that previous thing?” Sometimes the question being asked is a prompt to elaborate a previous point in a certain direction.

    anon #86: Thanks for the translation of “nu!” So with “so” I guess, “Conjunction junction, what’s your major malfunction?”

    I know a guy who, when it’s his turn to speak always starts with, “Yeah…”

    So nu?

  3. kip w says:

    The first thing that came to my mind was from a Bruce McCall take-off in National Lampoon (1973): “So you think Soviet concrete technology lags?”

    The second was “So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star” by the Byrds. That’d be the 60s.

    The third was a line in “Damn Yankees,” in a spoken part in “The Game,” when Smokey says, “So there we was, sittin’ underneath of a tree…” (Our director hated ad libs, but Jim snuck the word “of” in there and improved the line 100%.) Now we’re back to the 40s.

  4. Phikus says:

    So where’s the moral
    when people have their fingers broken
    To be insulted by these fascists
    it’s so degrading

    It’s No Game, David Bowie 1981

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lately on NPR, the host will ask a question, and the guest will answer the question: “So… yak,yak,yak..”
    In these cases, the word ‘so’ isen’t just wasted, it’s wrong.

  6. dotsandlines says:

    #23 has it. As others have noted, “so” has started sentences for a long time, but the usages have typically been to set up a situation: “So there I was in the jungle”, or to indicate a conclusion: “So, naturally I hid from the wombats”. But only in the past year or two have I started hearing people (notably interviewees on NPR) start their answers with “so” for absolutely no reason.

    I’d say this usage of “so” was a synonym for “um”, except that there isn’t even any hesitation before moving on to the rest of the sentence. It’s just spoken as if it actually meant something contextually, but it’s just tacked on without meaning. It’s irritating.

  7. dotsandlines says:

    (I meant #21)

  8. Hamish Grant says:

    So, I should tell you I can deal with “so” at the beginning of a sentence. What I can’t deal with is “or so” at the end of a sentence. Or so. I had a computer science teacher back in the 1980′s who used “or so” at the end of every second or third sentence. It was incredibly annoying. Or so.

  9. JonStewartMill says:

    I don’t mind that quirk nearly as much as I mind the new practice of using a double “is” in speech. It’s everywhere these days. “The problem is, is that…” AARRGH!

  10. Anonymous says:

    So what?

  11. eccentriffic says:

    Interesting. I’ve noticed that my mother and I both tend to end sentences with “so.”

    “We finally got the solar panel on the roof working, so…”

    I haven’t noticed it so much at the beginning of sentences, though.

    • sloverlord says:

      I think that’s a totally different effect. You’re using the word correctly, it’s just you’re ending the sentence early.

      So, did this really start in the late 90′s? I could’ve sworn I heard it before that, but maybe that’s indicative of quickly its use has become second-nature.

      • eccentriffic says:

        True. I think we tend to use it more as an effect to say that the sentence might continue, but we’re not sure what to say next. Almost like a placeholder.

    • Andrea James says:

      @eccentriffic: I have this same bad habit of ending sentences with so, which I notice when someone films me talking.

      Starting a sentence fragment with “so” is common in ad copy as well. You’re usually trying to make a claim, give some seemingly plausible reason for that claim, then state the benefit to the consumer, followed by a call to action: “Brawndo. What plants crave. Now with more electrolytes! So you can mutilate your thirst!! Join the Brawndo Army!!!”

  12. Gawain Lavers says:

    Hwæt. I know why I started doing it, and it has noth­ing to do with my neigh­bors to the south:
    http://www.amazon.com/Beowulf-New-Verse-Translation-Bilingual/dp/0393320979

  13. Anonymous says:

    So is it incorrect to use “so” at the beginning of the sentence?

  14. DigitalAcetone says:

    I just don’t get how everyone commenting here seems to be missing the most obvious answer to this question of “so”. The word can imply that one thing “follows” from another, as in “therefore”.

    Eg. “My car was stolen, so I have to walk home”

    My belief is that people use the word “So” at the beginning of their sentences to add credibility to the the next thing they’ll say. To simply make it sound like what they are saying “follows” from what whatever was said before.

    Eg. John: “I had a dream it would rain today” Jane: “So you must by psychic”.

    Since most people here do not seem to notice how the word “so” can be cleverly used to imply causality, its only logical that people who seek to manipulate others with language (as mentioned NLP) would use this word. The mind will go on search for that which the “SO” statment follows from – which may help create trance.

    Someone here also mentioned the use of this word by programmers. I would guess that the reason technical people like the word is because they find it a convenient shortcut to the word “therefore” or “because” – which is naturally used quite a bit in an analytical environment where “because” should be used quite often anyway.

    Lately I’ve noticed many youtube videos start “so.. ” as if whatever the person says next will logically follow from something. I think this just may be a confidence-trick of a sort, to create an illusion or make it sound like they are continuing or “picking up” something unfurnished. In reality the video or talk could be completely brand new. But when “so” is used, it is assumed that there is
    additional information.

    For example

    It may be more convenient for one to say:

    “so now I am eating this great sandwitch…”

    since it implies that something (know or unknown) has happend which caused him to eat this great sandwitch – and its up to you to guess “what” it could be.

    It may be less convenient for one to say:

    “I am eating this great sandwitch”.

  15. Moriarty says:

    So….

  16. franko says:

    as a long-lost friend of mine would always say when i used “so” at the beginning OR the end of a sentence,

    “So [sew] buttons!”

    miss you, dennis.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think this is true. I’ve heard the leading “so,” for decades, long before computers and programming.

  18. Anonymous says:

    “So let it be written, so let it be done.” – Pharaoh

  19. pilcrow says:

    So agree with #23. I will add that the classic ‘so’ opening gambit is only now becoming a corporate buzzword because the NLP asshats have discovered that ‘so’ has a compelling effect on sheep, causing them to be more open to suggestion:

    ‘So, you want to buy this car?’

    ‘So, would you like to have sex with me now, or wait until I sweep you off your feet?’

    ‘So, we can both agree, that it is, so.’

  20. seyo says:

    Pfft. This is spurious. I distinctly remember starting off sentences with “so” as a child growing up in the early 80′s and being critiqued for it by my Dad, the philologist and general language Nazi. This guy is a dweeb.

  21. grimc says:

    Typical Microsoft, claiming they invented things they didn’t.

  22. Anonymous says:

    My childhood English is that of Heaney’s, from South Derry, albeit from a different generation, and “so”, does indeed give a sense of indirection as the primary marker at the beginning of a clause. It is used liberally and often, and I never really noticed its usage until I first went to NE USA. In Maine it is not so much used as the beginning of a response, but as a lead in to a question. Much like the “Nu” as one comment, supra, noted.

  23. Ugly Canuck says:

    Ah…so.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Well, uh, so, what should be noted is that the initial “So, …” is used as more of a pause, to show a reflection on a conclusion rather than as a grammatical connector between this-then-that. So, you could say that it’s more of a relative of “Well,” and “Yeah, and,” or “Fuckin,” (As in, “Fuckin, I just paid my taxes today and I had to pay a penalty.”)

    “Fuckin,” is a good correlation to “So,” because it means roughly the same thing. “Fuckin, what I’m saying is that subarachnoid hemorrhages — right? — they exhibit this particular tendency to kill people. So, they’re deadly. OK? Fuckin, we have to discover new methodologies of monitoring at-risk individuals post-injury.”

    It’s a different pattern than, say, “So that people may live, we shall study brains. Or so.

    Of course the word existed before. Of course, this is a new method of using. In the course of language, these things happen. So, pointing to this word and saying that it has wide-spread using in a particular way today, and that this particular style of using it today has roots in another specific place, it makes sense.

    So I says to the audience, “Fuckin, it’s there, it’s OK, right?”

  25. Anonymous says:

    So, it seems that those who answer a question by prefacing the answer with “so” usually are either ivy leaguers or educated in the northeast in prep schools. I only notice it from intellectually “affected” people who are overly confident in their respective fields, but insecure in social skills. So?

  26. Anonymous says:

    So is this what we’re spending our time on?

  27. HowardsGrl says:

    Where I live (mid size southern American town) nobody says ‘so’ at the first of a sentence. The first time I heard this though, and it stood out because it sounded different to me, was when I worked for a company that did a large amount of Google pay per click advertising. Our ‘Google Adwords team’ from Google would be in phone calls (speaker phone) with us and they all said ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence a lot. Especially when answering a question. This was a couple of years ago.

  28. SamSam says:

    I have noticed a couple of my programmer coworkers using “so” to start most sentences, and it’s certainly annoying. However, I think it’s absurd to suggest that this started in one specific period. Using “so” to start a sentence is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and is perfectly correct.

    Doing a search on the contents of any non-fiction book on Amazon yields plenty of examples (although it’s a little tricky as it ignores case). I flipped through A Brief History of Time and found dozens of sentences starting with “so.” Ditto Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So I can see no reason to suggest that there could ever be a specific starting period for this use of the word.

  29. Anonymous says:

    puleeze! i was born in 1959 and always heard so at the beginning of a sentence. try looking at old movies. lierature, fairy tales. you’ve been mythbusted! so is merely a harmless intro or set-up. other languages have such features. at the end of a sentence, the word so intimates a termination of topic or conversation. xf. ellen degeneres’ mother. so…don’t fear so. you so and so. ;0

  30. Anonymous says:

    So ………. what!

  31. Anonymous says:

    So isn’t a new rejoinder to sentences. Whoever wrote Beowulf used it. I’ve written in response to this at http://stokelwalker.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/so-why-do-people-think-that-so-is-new/ and would love to hear comments.

  32. Anonymous says:

    It is strange…I have no problem with using ‘so’ to start a sentence but it’s when people use it to answer questions that ‘so’ just doesn’t fit.
    For example…and interviewer says to a stock analyst “What are your feelings on XYZ company?”
    And the moron answering says “So…XYZ company has some debt.” etc. WTF is SO doing there? This has definitely increased in the past two years…’so’ much ‘so’ I did a search and read this.

  33. alexdecampi says:

    Huh. I always thought it was a Kurt Vonnegut thing. (“So it goes”)

  34. gravytop says:

    This affectation (or whatever you want to call it) seems to have exploded in the last couple of year; interviews on NPR with younger writers show an alarmingly high adoption rate of the tendency to start a sentence with “so.” Personally, I find it very grating. The way I can deal it is when conversing with a “SOcialist”, I end each of my utterances with “So what?” That way a response starting with “so” kind of makes sense…

    • CarlS says:

      Exactly where I have noticed it. I can’t recall ever hearing it with such frequency until about a year ago. My impression was that there was some kind of big public speaking seminar trend that was advising everyone to start their responses with “so”.

      One clue is that many people do not use it fluidly, often pausing just after saying it, as if they were not accustomed to the practice.

      “How did you come to this theory?”
      “So…..when we looked at the data…”

    • MrShineHimDiamond says:

      I’ve been mentally noting this as the “Science Friday” So. It seems that half the guests on this NPR program begin their responses with an authoritative (or somewhat condescending) “So…”

  35. Anonymous says:

    Finally others are noticing this virus.

    I noticed it a few years ago, at least as far back as early 2007. I found it so aggravating, but queries on the net provided few indications that it was happening anywhere outside central Ohio.

    Hopefully, the topic on this thread has steered back on course and we can dispense with the “Olde English” examples which don’t even address the phenomenon in the original question.

    I’m to the point that I really don’t care if the intention is/was condescension. The alternative is the individual picked up the phrase from upper management and now blindly apes it just because it’s a new arrow in the quiver of “corporate speak”. There is no doubt it infected our company from the top down.

    I noticed a co-worker using it a couple of years ago and brought it to his attention. He chuckled and said he wasn’t even aware of it. Now, he’s about two levels higher and at least half his answers are prefaced with the word.

    It may fail to enthrall those who understand the origins, but I think upper management adores it, much like they swooned over “empowerment” in its heyday.

  36. xyglyx says:

    Not sure if Lewis is right. I seem to remember hearing this use of “so” in the scientific community before the late 90s.

    A typical exchange:

    Q: How does reverse photon defenestration work?
    A: So the mechanism is not perfectly understood, but….

  37. greybird says:

    I also immediately thought of Beowulf and Seamus Heaney’s stunning explanation for translating the first world of Beowulf as “So”. I have thought of it every time I have begun a sentence with “so” and have used it more since reading Heaney’s Beowulf.

    “Conventional renderings of the word ‘hwaet’, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary with ‘lo’ and ‘hark’ and ‘behold’ and ‘attend’ and –more colloquially– with ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

    introduction to beowulf, page 27 by seamus heaney

    • Anonymous says:

      greybird, I thought the same thing – and wrote a blogpost quoting exactly the same passage of Heaney as you did. It’s at http://stokelwalker.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/so-why-do-people-think-that-so-is-new/ – I could use some backup on that theory!

    • Ambiguity says:

      Conventional renderings of the word ‘hwaet’, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary with ‘lo’ and ‘hark’ and ‘behold’ and ‘attend’…

      So that I can remain sufficiently annoying (now that the masses seem to be over-using “so”), I think that, henceforth, I will start beginning many of my sentences with “Hwaer,” but this may conflict somewhat with my annoying, affected habit of ending most sentences with the phrase “so mote it be.”

  38. Anonymous says:

    So I herd you liek etymology…

  39. Anonymous says:

    In 1984 I happened to take a guided tour of Versailles, and the tour guide indicated her shift into English with “So…” I’m sure she had equivalent words in the other languages she used on the tour.

  40. Michael_GR says:

    Sounds more like valley speak than hacker slang.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Bollocks. I’ve a translation of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney that begins with the word “So”:

    So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
    and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness
    We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

    The translation was made in 1999 and he explains in the introduction that his family would use that particle at the beginning to call for attention: “in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was. Ed. Faber & Faber, Translated by Seamus Heaney. ISBN0-571-20342-6

  42. agger says:

    Pink Floyd, 1975:


    So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
    blue skies from pain.
    Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
    A smile from a veil?
    Do you think you can tell?

    John Lennon, early 80s:


    So this is Christmas
    And what have you done
    Another year over
    And a new one just begun
    And so this is Christmas …

    Somehow, I don’t think this use of “so” is anything to do with programmer usage. So you think you learned something new today? :-)

  43. Anonymous says:

    Verily, it has entered our everyday dialect.

  44. pidg says:

    “Starting a sentence with “so” uses the whiff of logic to relay authority.”

    NO! If I was interviewing someone and they started a sentence with “so”, they’d go to the bottom of the pile. “So” implies ‘you already know the background to this story’, which makes the speaker seem at best presumptious, and at worst a know-it-all.

    Even worse are people who just start sentences with “So,” for no reason – presumably just because they’ve seen other people doing it.

    Grahrgghh!

  45. SMurph says:

    Along similar lines, I’ve been intrigued by the replacement of “it” with “this” in certain specific cases: where one used to say, “Let’s do it!” it’s now become, “Let’s do this!” – which I am guessing is just a shortened version of, “Let’s do this thing!”. It seems like it started being used heavily in (maybe?) the mid-90′s but I remember it sounding jarring then…

  46. Anonymous says:

    It’s usage asserts a position of power or dominance over the listener, or at least an attempt at that. Think of it as a condesending put down every time you hear or read it lead a sentance.

  47. Anonymous says:

    Watch the guests on Leo Laporte’s shows for a day and you’ll hear this a dozen times. (Not from Leo or his excellent hosts though…)

    People who think that speakers use “so” for some deliberate rhetorical purpose are kidding themselves. It is a verbal tic and I find it extremely annoying. Here’s the test: would the sentence make sense, in context, if the “so” were omitted? Then it does not belong.

    I know this is slightly hijacking the thread as the post is about the history of the practice, but I can’t stand any implication that this is OK to do this.

    Why not start every sentence with “um?” I know! That will make you sound “thoughtful” and “considerate.” Nope. Just lazy.

    -Bob Mills

    • Anonymous says:

      Here’s the test: would the sentence make sense, in context, if the “so” were omitted?

      I think you mean “if ‘so’ were omitted”, since your sentence makes just as much sense in context without “the”.

      No, the truth is, “so” changes the character of the sentence. It’s a flavoring particle, and while it may not be to your taste, that doesn’t mean nobody should use it.

  48. Anonymous says:

    “So” can legitimately start a sentence when it means “when”, as in “So you like my hat?”

    Colloquially, it has long been used as a connective in a narrative: “So I says … So he says …”

    The annoying usage to which people so rightly object invariably marks a speaker under the age of 30!

  49. Anonymous says:

    Did you ever hear of an Englishman by the name of Shakespeare? He loved using ‘so’ at the beginning of sentences.

    Here is a small sample from one of his plays, Titus Andronicus:

    “So, trouble me no more, but get you gone.”

    “So, Bassianus, you have play’d your prize:
    God give you joy, sir, of your gallant bride!”

    “So near the emperor’s palace dare you draw,
    And maintain such a quarrel openly?”

    “So should I rob my sweet sons of their fee:
    No, let them satisfy their lust on thee.”

    “So, now bring them in, for I’ll play the cook,
    and see them ready ‘gainst their mother comes”

    I could go on and give you examples from any of his other plays, but this places the use of ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence in the English Language back 400 years at least.

    • Anonymous says:

      Those are all correct uses of the word. I think the recent trend has been the nonsensical use of “so” in response to a question, or to begin every single sentence whether it makes sense or not. To me it sounds arrogant and condescending, as if the speaker is being dismissive. If you ever experience it used in this way, it really stands out.

    • greybird says:

      I am surprised and amused that so many of us thought of Beowulf (in translation, no less!) before Shakespeare. Does this connection say something to the mental maps of boingboing readers? Or perhaps some literary critic should write a compelling paragraph about the motivations behind Shakespeare’s use of “so” that would displace Heaney’s eloquence in our mass consciousness.

  50. m_dow says:

    I’m with Gawain Lavers and greybird (who beat me to the punch on quoting Heaney). Beginning sentences with “so” clearly has a much longer history that the article would like to admit.

    However, the Hiberno-English use does seem different than the Silicon Valley use. No time to follow it up, but that might be interesting.

  51. dagfooyo says:

    I had an art history professor once who started every sentence with “The idea of…” It was incredibly irritating and what was worse I started unconsciously using it myself in everyday conversation. “The idea of being hungry and making lunch.. GAH!”

  52. daen says:

    Interesting. Agger pointed out to me (back in #57) that the Danish use of “sÃ¥” is equivalent to “now” … and jccw mentions (in #65) that the Yiddish equivalent is “nu” … which also means “now”, in Danish. Weird confluence of unassociated linguistic oddities.

  53. Anonymous says:

    Check Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. The opening word “Hwaet”, he translates as “so”.

  54. jccw says:

    In Yiddish, it seems to be common to start a sentence with “Nu.” The English equivalent is “So.’
    So, it was common usage in NYC when I lived there 50 years ago, and I assume long before that.

  55. Ugly Canuck says:

    So is your mother!

  56. Anonymous says:

    As a reporter I find interview subjects use the word so at the start of a sentence to give themselves just enough time to disengage their minds from the question I just asked and allow themselves time to think of the bit of spin/messaging glossip that they want to say instead of actually answering the question.

    From an auditory perspective the word so provides a kind of a firewall between the question and the non answer and kind of camouflages the fact that they haven’t answered the question. It can also provide a sort of faux authoritative voice that subtly puts down the interviewer.

    It only works for a little while though and any interviewer who is experienced with this sort of response style will take countermeasures. It works best asa spin technique in live broadcast and doesn’t really work at all in print because the subject can’t force the reporter to put the “so” into their quotes.

  57. libelle says:

    I have been accused of overusing this verbal tic, which I attribute to wanting a softer segue into a topic. It’s also an instrument of inclusion — when I start my story with “so there I was …” my listener … er … victim feels drawn in.

    I think it’s less annoying than some of the related verbal tics that I have cultivated over the years:

    - The Academic “now,” e.g. “Now, we see that the point of democratic capitalism is to let the masses think they’re in control as we take their money.”

    - The Biblical “thus,” e.g., “Thus, a truly Christlike being would *always* advocate against marriage, as did Jesus in Corinthians 7.”

    - The Biblical “therefore,” e.g., “Therefore be thou gone, and sin no more!”

    - The Poetical “and,” e.g., “And the sun also rose, and the frost of the fields turned to dew.”

    - The Douchebaggish “yes,” e.g., “Yes, my friend, if you simply hire me, all your problems will be at an end.”

    (I’d also argue that “so” as a sentence lead-in has been promulgated by a number of popular personalities, including Ira Glass and John Stewart.)

  58. Anonymous says:

    So (!) all of these comments got me thinking overnight here in the UK and I’ve pulled out some more, even earlier examples of the use of ‘So’ beyond the first, natural Beowulf thought.

    It’s another link, sorry! Here’s the blogpost: http://stokelwalker.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/following-up-the-so-argument/

  59. mr_h says:

    I’ve been doing a project with some freestyle rap artists recently and noticed people in conversation using the word “so . . . ” to signify they are about to launch into a point in a similar way to how the word “yo” is used by rappers, especially when rapping together in sequence, to let people know they are about to start / want to take over.

    Both “Oh” sounds, but one has the soft attack of the s which eases in that the speaker wants your attention, while the hard attack of the Yer sound (which makes your jaw jut forward) makes it more aggressively clear that the person wants to come in.

    I wonder if other languages also use words with this “oh” sound to head up a fresh statement. Anyone know / noticed?

    Oh, and I thought this use of “so” was as old as the hills.

  60. Anonymous says:

    Everyone at the Today show delights in starting every segment with “And…” As in, “And, good morning everyone….” Even though there was really nothing prior to that statement.

  61. Carrie says:

    The Yiddish, Nu, is used by my Jewish friends as a question at the beginning if sentences,
    “Nu? *long pause* How’s the family?”

    There is one person who says “so” at the end of sentences all the time.
    Captian Picard, “Make it so.”
    Sounds ok to me.

  62. Anonymous says:

    When I went to a recent Trans Siberian Orchestra show, they alternated songs with a narrated story. Nearly every single narrated section began with “And so…”

  63. Anonymous says:

    You cannot start a sentence with any coordinating conjunction.

    Full stop.

    You can use it stylistically for emphasis, but every sentence? It has leaked out of the techno geek community and into the corporate world – through the IR guys trying to sound believable explaining the science. So we may as well get used to it.

  64. RobMcC says:

    Glad to see this finally getting some attention – I started noticing this usage around 2006. However, it’s most glaring when it starts the beginning of an *answer*, as mentioned in the NYT article.

    Check out this YouTube excerpt I did of Yale Endowment’s Dave Swensen on The Charlie Rose Show – 8 out of his 19 answers began with “so” – http://bit.ly/Si3Ai

    To my ears, Giridharadas has it exactly right saying its use carries “the whiff of logic to relay authority.” However, so many people now are using it, and so frequently, I believe it’s become a verbal tic, with its users wholly unaware of the paternalistic freight the usage carries.

    The word is a conjunction – but you won’t find any justification in Strunk & White for its unremitting use at the beginning of answers.

  65. WalterBillington says:

    I hate it. I so hate it.

    Prefixing a sentence with so fills the speaker of tripe with confidence that they’re convincing their audience of the rightness of the statement, of the comingalongwithness of the listener.

    So in this sense means “therefore” and “you agree unless you rudely interrupt me”.

    It’s a non-fucking-sequitur. So nothing.

    Bankers do it, lawyers do it, it’s lazy, it’s annoying, it’s unconvincing, it’s irritating that people don’t challenge it, it indicates a slip in synchronisation between the listener and speaker, it’s impolite and it so I fucking hate it.

    So we’re all in agreement.

  66. mr_h says:

    Also @agger it’s even earlier : John & Yoko originally recorded Happy Xmas (War Is Over) in 1971, so . . .

  67. IronEdithKidd says:

    Wow, and I’m still bothered by the extensive overuse of “um” and “er”, and the phrase “we’re talking”. I’m not so bothered by “so” unless it’s immediately followed by “like, fersure”.

  68. aurora_f says:

    I just started reading Death of the Heart, a British novel by Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1938. In the first chapter a fragment from a 16-year-old’s diary is read, beginning, “So, I am with them, in London.”

    Maybe it’s just teenagers, and now we never stop speaking like teenagers.

  69. Anonymous says:

    This is a total myth. Sentence-initial “so” has been part of English for many centuries. So there.

  70. Rich Keller says:

    We’ve been starting sentences with “so” in Wisconsin for decades, maybe even for over a century and ending them with “then”. I didn’t really notice it until I moved out of state and read “How to Talk American” by Jim Crotty. He even goes in to the occasional use of the interjection, “so, then.”

  71. Anonymous says:

    When people use it this way I hear it as ‘durrrr’.

  72. hubbledeej says:

    They discussed this on the CBC radio program “Quirks and Quarks” earlier this year. I have thought about it ever since, because it seemed common with people they interviewed on the show (scientists) but I had never heard people using it in real life. I wondered if it originated with people who were not native English speakers, or part of some community (lab scientists)! As said by a non-scientist.

  73. Keith says:

    “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
    and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
    We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”

    –opening stanza of Beowulf, sometime between the 8th and 11th century. (Seamus Heaney translation)

    • daen says:

      The Danes (at least – possibly the Icelanders, Swedes and Norwegians, too) use ‘SÃ¥’ to begin a declaratory sentence (eg ‘SÃ¥ blev jeg færdig med at skrive min opgave’ – ‘so I’ve finished writing my essay’). I don’t know if the English ‘so’ comes from the Danish ‘sÃ¥’, or vice versa, but the Danish one has been around for longer than the internet has, for sure.

      • agger says:

        The Danes (at least – possibly the Icelanders, Swedes and Norwegians, too) use ‘SÃ¥’ to begin a declaratory sentence ” …

        Yes, but that usage is different since you wouldn’t translate it with “so”. The example you give would read “Now I’ve finished my assignment”, etc. English usage of “so” is different, though you can find it in “sÃ¥ du tror du er noget”, etc.

      • Anonymous says:

        I heard Germans say it going back a couple of decades, although it’s pronounced “zo”.

  74. Anonymous says:

    It is absolutely a NPR thing! I’ve noticed it more over the last year.

  75. Anonymous says:

    I would agree with those who see it as having evolved into a nearly-subconscious interjection, in much the same was as the word “like” is randomly peppered in speech. I hate when (young) people use “like” randomly in sentences. It sounds ignorant and vapid.

  76. MrJM says:

    I prefer to use “thus” instead of “so” in order to use the whiff of logic to relay: 1) my authority, and 2) my douchebaggery.

    Works every time.

  77. Anonymous says:

    When prepended as an affectation it is obnoxious, pretentious and obviously superfluous. Valley talk indeed.

  78. Johnny Rojo says:

    I just hate the expression: “It was so fun!” It’s the old adjective/adverb distinction that so seems to be so falling from so much usage, so whaddya do. I also hate all those TV programs (CSI NY is the worst offender) where people interpret the elided expression “whaddya got” (what have you got) as “what do you got” which is an illitericism. Well, that’s me, nothing to do but complain about the rising tide…. So?!

  79. Anonymous says:

    “in terms of” – that’s used as filler for everything suddenly. Once you start listening for it, you’ll go mad.

  80. Anonymous says:

    As a professional video producer in San Francisco, I will affirm that this habit has EXPLODED in the last three years. When I begin writing and start reviewing the field interviews, I cannot believe how common “So…” has become. People are ruining their cadence by trying to say too much.

    Instead of pausing for a period at the end of each discrete thought, spoken information now: begins normally, then slurs for thought… Inserts The “So…”!, and speeds up again for the first half of the next sentence. When you transcribe it, the periods are now in the middle of every sentence, with every end/beginning rising and falling, rising and falling.

    I’ve had to interrupt interviews with designers, managers and sculptors to ask them to “Slow Down!”

  81. pilcrow says:

    @WalterBillington: It’s definitely a weasel word, and people are well-advised to be wary of anyone who uses it in regular conversation. ‘So’ is an ambiguous word with multiple meanings, one of which is ‘truth’. So, when someone says so, and quickly follows it with an opinion stated as a fact, simpletons are more likely to accept said opinion as fact. The real trick is in the timing, inserting the opinion at the precise moment when the reader’s mind is searching for a context of ‘so’ to discern the proper meaning–since there is no context presented (so being the first and only word) the listener’s bullshit detector is rendered temporarily offline.

    Like I said, persuasion techniques such as ‘so’ only work on the feeble-minded, creating a momentary fugue state to reduce resistance to suggestion. This is a classic technique in hypnosis and mind-control, and it doesn’t surprise me that it has become common-place within microsoft’s corporate culture, with most underling employees not even understanding why they are saying ‘so’ so often.

    • WalterBillington says:

      I love you. You put into real words what my mind wanted to express, nearly without using rude words.

      “So” as a prefix sits in the same zone as me as suffixing a sentence with “, right?”. That’s again an aggression on etiquette designed to hoodwink the listener into thinking they’ve agreed. In fact, many people bookend sentences with “so – ” + “, right?”.

      Not only simpletons, mind! At 11pm at night, you’ve worked all day, and the salesman of the team starts saying “so … , right?”, and your temper should flare. But it’s un-modern to challenge today’s lazy etiquettes with good etiquette, which did develop over millenia (I presume), and serve a real structural purpose in personal relationships.

      My standard response to “so” is that it’s a non-sequitur, and the user is politely requested to retrace their formulation to justify their proposed correlation.

      Agh, I hate it, and I throw it into the river. I shall pronounce it as “sue” from now on. Which shall make me think of Jonny Cash and smile.

      Face it – you wouldn’t find Shakira saying it. If that counts.

  82. Matt Deckard says:

    Why are so many people providing “counterexamples” of people using “so” at the beginning of sentences in various contexts when the article very clearly is talking specifically about the habit of beginning answers to questions with “so”. It’s even right there in the blurb Mark posted:

    “When a computer programmer answers a question,” he wrote, “he often begins with the word ‘so.’”

    None of the supposed “counterexamples” of usage prior to the 90′s involve answers to questions, so why exactly are they relevant to this discussion? Nobody is making the claim that beginning sentences with “so” is a new phenomenon.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Why did the chicken cross the road?

      So he can get to the other side.”

      That famous old joke is from the mid-19th century. At least 150 years old, and it shows the use of ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence answering a question.

      Hamlet by William Shakespeare

      Act 1. Scene 2:

      KING CLAUDIUS
      How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

      HAMLET
      Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun

      Act1. Scene 3:

      LORD POLONIUS
      What is’t, Ophelia, be hath said to you?

      OPHELIA
      So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.

      Again, Shakespeare’s work is at least 400 years old, and that was just two examples from one of his plays. There are too many other examples to list them all.

      • SamSam says:

        “Why did the chicken cross the road? So he can get to the other side.”

        That’s a “so” that is grammatically required in the sentence. The answer wouldn’t be grammatical without it.

        Compare that to

        Q: Why is the project going to be two weeks late?

        A: So it turns out the compiler is buggy and we’re going to have to re-write it from scratch.

        Q: How come nothing I program seems to work?

        A: So the first thing to remember is that you should be programming in QBasic

        … that’s clearly a different usage of the word so than either “So he can get to the other side” or “So I was sitting under the tree minding my own business…”

        The write-up didn’t quite explain this clearly enough, which is why everyone felt the need to continuously provide examples of correct usage of “so.”

        • Anonymous says:

          Yes, this is absolutely correct. Like others have mentioned, guests on NPR’s Science Friday, as well as other NPR guests with science/technical backgrounds, have a really annoying tendency to start their RESPONSES with “so.” I don’t really find it condescending, just incredibly jarring, as if they’re in the middle of a story and you missed the first part.

          “How did you get interested in this project?”
          “So I first heard about it in college…”

          “How long have you been involved with the group?”
          “So I’ve been doing this for four or five years now…”

          I can understand starting with “Well” or even “Y’know.” But I don’t get the “so” thing. Drives me nuts! And this is on top of the other annoying things on NPR, like the propensity of “going/moving forward.”

  83. Anonymous says:

    So jccw’s the only one around who remembers the yiddish comics of the fifties now? Oy, veh. Nobody’s ever heard “So what am I, chopped liver”?

  84. zomgjess says:

    “So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the
    half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.” Nehemiah 4:6

    ^ King James Version of teh Bible

  85. Anonymous says:

    I agree completely with pidg #27. I just heard a discussion on NPR and the “expert” answered every with “So ……..” There are occasions where it is appropriate, but “so” refers back to something and if that something is not there it sounds ridiculous. It annoys me nearly as much as the ubiquitous rising inflection. The nuns who taught me English in Connecticut from 1940 – 1948 would have been scandalized!

  86. Anonymous says:

    Yes! Matt Deckard #92

    Music lyrics, poetry, literature, the Bible etc. all make use of poetic language. That’s fine.

    The problem is with everyday conversation, particularly between an interviewer and the subject of the interview.

    A theory: many Americans have an aversion to silence. Even just a couple of seconds. It’s as if you must begin making sounds even if you are still formulating your thought. Maybe because a) you might get interrupted, or b) if the answer isn’t instantaneous you think your position will be perceived as weak. It’s OK to pause for a moment to think about what you are going to say. Really!

    - Bob Mills

  87. Tdawwg says:

    Heaney’s “so” doesn’t really fit Hwæt, though, which is really more like “hark, lo,” etc. These words sound funny, but “so” is a bit more retiring, downbeat, etc. (as Heaney says). “So!” would be closer to the original, but would look weird in English: a bit too peppy, cheery, etc. On the whole, Heaney’s Beowulf is a rather free translation, although an exquisite one.

    • Avram / Moderator says:

      I’ve always thought that the best modern equivalent to Beowulf‘s opening “hwæt” is Hank Hill’s “Tell-you-what…”.

  88. jpoore says:

    I first noticed frequent use of “so” to begin a sentence in the Dalai Lama’s answers to interviewers. Perhaps this is a Tibetan language trait, or maybe it shows that, to him, each thought is built upon, is a continuation of those that came before. I have wondered if the spread of the introductory “so” might be due to the influence, conscious and unconscious, of the Dalai Lama on certain influential California social strata. It sounds endearing coming from him, less so from others.

  89. Anonymous says:

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with the word except when it’s the first word in response to a question, particularly when the question is then not actually answered. It’s maddening in that context. I don’t think most objectors mean it should never be used to start a sentence at all.

  90. RobMcC says:

    Right on, pilcrow #88 and Matt Deckard #89! This usage, pilcrow’s comment reminds us, is beyond annoying – it’s downright pernicious – and understandably certainly flows from and is in service to the modern culture of double-speak and Orwellian thought-control. I’d not sussed that before, and I appreciate the further examination. Thank you two, and you all, for your comments.

  91. Crashproof says:

    So I’ve been known to do this, and I’m a programmer, so…

    But I also have been known to begin and/or end my sentences with another word, but…

  92. Anonymous says:

    A quick cor pus search shows slight but not dra matic growth in Eng lish sen­tence ini tial “So” from about 305 occur rences per mil lion words from 1990 to 1994 up to 468 occur rences per mil lion words from 2005 to 2009. Sur pris ingly usage of sen tence ini tial “So” occurs most fre quently in spo ken lan guage and least fre quently in aca d e mic and news pa per gen res. Over the same time period sen tence ini tial “well” is much less fre quent occur ring on aver age 62 occur rences per mil lion words. There is lit tle evi dence that “so” has replaced “well” over this period of trans for ma tion into an algo rith mic cul ture. It has been a pop u lar dis course par ti cle since before the 90s.

  93. Roast Beef says:

    So, I came to make the same observation about Seamus Heany’s translation of Beowulf that every single other commenter has made. Um, I’ll just show myself out.

    But hey! Nobody’s mentioned David Foster Wallace’s “So and but”, which just about signifies the desperate adolescent addicted tone of Infinite Jest for me: wiping out prior discourse, demanding attention, and immediately changing the subject.

    Also, yes to everyone who identifies this as a Yiddishism. (I bet Ira Glass and Jon Stewart could tell you more!)

  94. Yamara says:

    “Lo” will always be at the start of the internet, however.

  95. Anonymous says:

    Began with affected British professors.

  96. charlesj says:

    Back in Britain in the 1970′s, I recall there was a whole line of humor (humour) around WWII movies and mock German accents. A convention of the genre was that the bad guys would often begin sentences with “So” – as in “So, you are new to Colditz!” See for example:

    http://www.sexycoolvideos.com/MORECAMBE-&-WISE–In-Bed-32__MmopJnVcGYo.html

  97. dross1260 says:

    Ring Lardner replies, “What of it?”

  98. schreist says:

    So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one — big hitter, the Lama — long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga…gunga — gunga galunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.

  99. Antinous / Moderator says:

    “So” is just an abbreviation for “and so it came to pass”.

  100. Anonymous says:

    Bobby Blumofe, who received his Ph.D. from MIT in 1995 started almost every sentence with the word “so”. He was a professor of mine in the late nineties when I was studying computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. I found it needlessly didactic and overbearing.

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