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Do you use “so” to manage conversations?

So, letterpress

Over the last few years, lovers of language have casually observed an increase in speakers beginning sentences with the word so. What are some new ways in which so is being used in colloquial speech, and what cues do these utterances send to listeners?

Consider the following example:

Speaker 1: Dr. Johnson, when did you start studying this disorder?
Speaker 2: So, I had noticed certain patients seemed to…

In this example, Doctor Johnson is replying to the interviewer’s question with a sentence-initial so. But why? One explanation is that in this case, so is being used as a filled pause, much in the way that “well,” “um,” and “like” are used in conversation, a topic discussed in the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley. However, according to Lexicon Valley host Mike Vuolo this explanation is overly simplified; so as a discourse marker is “more nuanced” than that. When one person asks a question and the other person begins their response with so, “it sounds like you should be continuing a narrative,” says Grant Barrett, linguist and host of A Way with Words. So is not being used just to fill a pause, it seems, but as a tool for conversation management.

Researcher Galina Bolden studied recordings of conversations, looking at the difference between the sentence-initial oh and so. In a 2010 New York Times article Anand Giridharadas sums up insight Bolden supplied via email: “To begin a sentence with ‘oh,’…is to focus on what you have just remembered and your own concerns. To begin with ‘so,’…is to signal that one’s coming words are chosen for their relevance to the listener.” If words like so and oh were used to arbitrarily fill a pause, they wouldn’t take on such different functions from each other. Bolden suggests here that the sentence-initial so is a way for the speaker to subtly cue to the listener that the following information is relevant to the listener’s interests. Whether or not the information is actually relevant is for the listener to decide, though perhaps this cue makes it more likely for a conversational partner to pay attention. (If you want to learn more, Bolden’s research is also discussed in this Language Log post.)

Let’s look at another example. Imagine two strangers are talking at a party, and one is trying very hard to carry on a conversation with the other: 

Speaker 1: So, how do you know Myra?
Speaker 2: College.
Speaker 1: So, I met Myra rock climbing at Yosemite… 

In this example, the sentence-initial so is being used in two different ways. So works as a conversational prompt in the first line, and in the third line, so is used to carry on the conversation. In this way, so is a tool that helps ensure the conversation keeps up its pace by allowing a quick transition from one topic to another. Additionally so is sometimes used to change the subject altogether; a person might start a non-sequitur with the word so. It’s a way for a savvy conversationalist to avoid awkward silences. 

Geoffrey Raymond, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explores the sentence-initial so in his paper “Prompting Action: The Stand-Alone ‘So’ in Ordinary Conversation.” Take, for example, the following exchange:

Speaker 1: I went to the grocery store this afternoon.
Speaker 2: Which one did you go to? I love the one on Lawrence and Rockwell. They have excellent produce.
Speaker 1: That’s where I always go. So I was buying avocados…

Raymond calls this the so-prefaced upshot (discussed in detail in this Lexicon Valley episode). Speaker 2 took the conversation on a tangent, and Speaker 1 brought it back to the topic she wanted to discuss; in this way Speaker 1 is able to return to the original narrative. This use of so assumes a certain level of engagement in the discussion. The speaker assumes that the listener is engaged enough to connect the words following so to an earlier moment in the conversation. This kind of assumption harks back to Bolden’s theory that the sentence-initial so is a way of involving a listener in a conversation by somehow indicating that the information to come is relevant to the listener. In this example, so is directly referential, though as we can see from earlier examples, the point of reference can range from obvious to abstruse. The point of reference might not even be a verbal marker in the conversation; it could, as described above in the second example, be something like a feeling of awkwardness.

In English, the word so is highly polysemous. It can be used as an adverb, a conjunction, a pronoun, an interjection, or an adjective. You could argue that the sentence-initial so is an interjection (see the second interjection sense, or sense 16, of well), but the so discussed in this article closely resembles, and might be best described, as a coordinating conjunction. Generally coordinating conjunctions are used to connect words, phrase, clauses, or sentences. However, the sentence-initial so is unique in that the connection being made is more conceptual than grammatical. The items being linked are streams of conversation, and not the traditional adjacent words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. This often irks grammar sticklers, but linguists and lexicographers hear this emerging use of so with the analytic distance of a scientist. We watch. We observe. We wait to see how deeply it permeates the utterances of English speakers. We wonder if it will become a standard way to use so in the future.

Have you heard or seen any good examples of the sentence-initial so? What part of speech do you think the sentence-intial so falls under? Let us know in the comments.

Check back next week for Part II of this post, in which we discuss the dangling so, or when people end their sentences with “so…”

121 Comments

  1. Tish -  August 30, 2014 - 4:47 am

    Whew! Thank goodness I’m not the only one! I’ve just noticed this trend for the past year or so (and yes, I discovered it on NPR, too). It’s so annoying because these people are using the word “so” where it doesn’t fit! These are people who are supposedly intellectuals, but I lose all respect for them when I hear them do this.

    Reply
    • Tish -  August 30, 2014 - 4:50 am

      Yes, I know, I meant to take the word “who” out of my last sentence.

      Reply
  2. Mitch -  August 29, 2014 - 5:38 am

    If it is not overused in a conversation or speech I can appreciate “so” used at the end of a sentence. This new increased usage at the beginning, (made me consider that I had missed a major event spurring its use) of a sentence is difficult to not notice. For me beginning with “so” draws my attention away from the subject. In the worse case I’ve shifted my impression of an official, or expert deploying a strategically placed “so” again at the opening if their remarks. While not necessarily so I’ve considered that they were not quite the professional. A strategic placement of juxtapose is sure to follow in a speech. Non professional use tends to make me consider he or she is attempting to liven their conversation by using a current trend. This is much less annoying than a speaker or “experts” usage.

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  3. Dan -  May 17, 2014 - 4:16 pm

    This seems to be the latest “trendy” language. Funny, I was listening to an old Top 40 radio aircheck from the 60′s last week, and the DJ was routinely using words and phrases like “groovy”, “diggin’ it” and “boss”. It was, as Austin Powers would put it, “shagadelic baby!”. Likewise, if you watch an old movie from the 40′s, you’re likely to hear “neat”, “keen” and “swell” more often than not. Linguistic habits are like any other trend….they come and they go, just like CB radios, Members-Only Jackets, Izod sweaters and the DeLorean. This is merely the latest trendy symbol some people use to set themselves apart from the mainstream. History shows, however, that when any trend becomes mainstream, it burns out pretty quickly, mainly because those who want to be different from the masses need to find a new way to set themselves apart. Personally, I’m anxiously awaiting the day when all the trendies will begin their sentences with the word “woof”. Now THAT will be entertaining!

    Reply
  4. Thomas -  April 23, 2014 - 6:54 am

    I use the word “so” in the beginning of sentences to shift listener attention to me.
    Otherwise people do not hear the first part of my sentence and I have to repeat.

    Reply
    • Naima -  July 21, 2014 - 2:21 pm

      Precisely Thomas! I do the very same thing. It seems to me that no one wants to listen to what others have to say because it’s not about them. Using “so” at the beginning of a sentence does indeed force people to actually pay attention.

      Reply
  5. Tim -  April 15, 2014 - 7:00 am

    My annoyance has lead me to this page. I’m glad I am not alone. I didn’t have a chance to read all of the comments yet but I am working on it. I would like to add that equally annoying (and distracting) is the likely use of ‘sort of’ soon after an NPR type starts a sentence with the word ‘So’.

    If you hadn’t noticed, now you can be annoyed with me when you hear it.

    Reply
    • Jennifer -  April 18, 2014 - 4:58 pm

      Listen to an episode of HBR IdeaCast. the interviewers use of “sort of” is mind boggling. Sometimes I have to turn off the podcast and just read the transcript.

      Reply
  6. Don Burton -  March 19, 2014 - 10:16 pm

    People who lead with the word so piss me off from the start and totally ruin for me everything that comes out of their mouths next. All I can think about is, “wow this person being interviewed on N P R thinks he/she needs to sound like a self important intellectually superior snob!” We know you’re a geek already…you don’t have to reassure us of this fact even though you feel compelled to “hold us spellbound” to your “fascinating” monologue. Get the #$*@ over yourself already! Oh no here comes my next part peeve..”the selfie” shoot me now.

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  7. Rob -  March 1, 2014 - 2:14 pm

    I agree with Will. I first noticed this on NPR, with almost all their guests and sometimes their reporters starting off with so. Very annoying!

    Reply
  8. Enrique -  February 28, 2014 - 1:05 pm

    This fairly recent trend is annoying, as is most of what I would call “empty speech”, and conveys information about the speaker that he or she probably would not like. People who have little of substance to say will often fill in their speech with empty words or phrases. Over time, these habits become infectious “ticks”, used by ever greater numbers of people who, perhaps unconsciously, want to feel they belong to the larger group. The particularly British habit of the “tag question” is one such example (isn’t it?). The use of “like” between words seems to especially affect teenage girls. Made up words like “irregardless” is one of my favorites. This happens in all languages, not just English. Language, like fashion, has its trends. Some last; some don’t. We all want to belong, even if we have to sound and look stupid to do it.

    Reply
    • tony -  June 27, 2014 - 9:48 am

      Since you mention annoying words or speech patterns, the one that makes my skin crawl is “you have to understand…”. This seems to be born out of a genuine desire to communicate; however, the person who says it seems to want to quash any disagreement with his view before the alternative view begins.

      Reply
  9. will -  February 24, 2014 - 7:16 pm

    I cannot stand this trend. Every single guest on NPR speaks this way and it is extremely annoying. Some guests will use it in front of every sentence, then they conclude the sentence with “right?”. That’s like the one-two punch of the self-obsessed pseudo-intellectuals of NPR.

    Reply
    • tony -  June 27, 2014 - 9:39 am

      I began noticing this on CSpan in the last few months. It does seem to be like a communicable disease that has passed around by individuals who have a certain peer group. Whoa, that may be a little too strong…maybe, not a communicable disease. Maybe the term communicable speech pattern would be more neutral.

      Reply
  10. Evan -  February 17, 2014 - 2:32 pm

    I googled this very topic because it has been intriguing me so much. The discussion on this blog seems to me the most on-point and in-depth—although, with due respect to many commenters, sentence-initial SO is interesting when it is used in a declarative statement, not an interrogative one. I believe that Nancy’s (Aug 19) & Lyla’s (Aug 17) comments come closest to identifying the phenomenon correctly. I consider this use of SO to be a class-marker, a status-indicator. The article and many commenters allude to its prevalence on radio interviews: I have noticed that too. It is a sign of a rehearsed (to some extent) speech, one that is more thought-out than most everyday discourse. Or more tellingly, it seems to be an attempt to signal that what one is about to say is intelligent, somewhat akin to how “basically” was used in the past. I would venture that it is used disproportionately by university-educated speakers, and even more disproportionately by academics. Very interesting sociolinguistics topic worth pursuing.

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  11. Chris P -  January 19, 2014 - 8:24 am

    I thought it was just me. The use of ‘so’ is common in German, but around 18 months ago I began to notice English-speakers in the UK using it. Granted, not everybody. And judging from radio and TV it would appear to be more prevalent amongst better educated folk. It can still cause me to miss what someone’s saying as my head tries to work out why my, or their, interlocutor has inserted the meaningless and confusing ‘so’.

    Almost always ‘so’ makes no sense whatsoever. I confess that I tend to ask people who say it to me if they can explain why they started their response with ‘so’ when its use wasn’t needed to respond to my question. The slightly scary thing is that none are aware they’re doing it. Of course, the users of ‘umm’, ‘well’, ‘like’ and so on are rarely aware of their speech impediment.

    But where does this horrid misuse of English come from? I’m inclined to think TV is at fault. And I suspect it would be Australian or US TV. It’s very noticeable that our ‘proper’ English has been infiltrated by quite a number of Oz slang words which only appeared with “Neighbours” and “home & Away” becoming popular with young folk. The same’s been happening with Americanisms for many years.

    I found this ‘article’ very interesting.

    Reply
  12. Peter -  December 13, 2013 - 6:54 pm

    I too have noted this word – “so” – being used a lot, most often when beginning the answers to questions.

    It really is a meaningless pause, and signifies nothing.

    I don’t see it is derivative of anything. I see it simply as a trend that people follow without thinking, and it becomes habit. It is much like the trend over the past 10 or 15 years of people using the word “absolutely” when they mean yes.

    It does get a bit annoying because it has no meaning whatsoever. If the word pointed to some idea, it would be different. But it doesn’t.

    Reply
    • Michael -  April 2, 2014 - 6:44 am

      I fell upon this discussion while doing research for an article that I’m about to write concerning the recent trend of beginning responses with the word SO instead of using it as a connector somewhere in the middle. I, too, realized its prevalence while listening to interviewees on NPR, and at first thought it simply a misguided generational trend. After putting some thought to it, I’ve begun to conclude that it has a conscious functionality, but a different one than has been raised in this discussion. Does anyone agree that starting a response with SO might be a technique for convincing the listener that what is about to be said is a FACT rather than some subjective rhetoric? In other words, the word SO is being used here subliminally as an adjective– an abbreviation of sorts for “It is entirely so that…”. Very curious.

      Reply
    • patricia -  April 16, 2014 - 1:55 am

      It wouldn’t be so bad (albeit annoying) if it were only adolescent speak, but to hear it being used in serious speech is grating for the stickler-for-grammar me. The interested linguist, on the other hand, sees it as a small change in language use over time. Add on “absolutely”, and “basically” …

      Reply
    • Mark Harrison -  August 14, 2014 - 12:37 pm

      It always feels to me like they are saying, “So. (We are finally at the important part, now that you are done.)…

      Reply
  13. Kealin -  December 10, 2013 - 10:45 am

    The unusual and over- use of ‘so’ is creeping in to language in Ireland too. I’ve noticed it primarily on radio interviews and not too much in everyday conversations – but it is SO irritating.

    Reply
  14. Steve C -  December 8, 2013 - 2:20 am

    I noticed this by way of our wonderful politicians in Wash DC using “So..” to respond to questions. That was a red flag for me. To me, its a way of cutting off the conversation and starting in the middle someplace. Its a controlling mechanism that locks out the person who raised the question initially. It is condescending in that regard

    Reply
  15. Jacqueline -  August 27, 2013 - 4:40 am

    So, this is something I’ve picked up in my own vernacular of sentence structure. Sometimes, it’s involuntary, and sometimes, it’s strategically placed to bring up an irrelevant story, in which I can then make it relatable to my audience at that point in time. (You see what I did there?) In addition to that, I have become privy to what can be referred to as “Hipster Speak”, wherein shortened and/or abbreviated terms are inserted for the sake of sounding catchy, or “with it”, or out of just plain laziness. It is a jargon I find myself prompting within my age group more so for the sake of irony. I am, however, one to overuse other “hot word” phrases such as “yeah” (If you were to take this article and replace ‘so’ with ‘yeah’, you would find me relating to the latter similarly.), “really/seriously”,”nice”, and, most of all, “lol”, which can be found at the end of nearly every sentence in my personal conversations.

    Now, clearly, I don’t suffer in the Language Arts field, but merely enjoy taking advantage of a casual setting outside of professionalism when such is not necessary.

    Reply
  16. Chris Miller -  August 27, 2013 - 12:37 am

    Do you want my daughter in law’s phone number? She will make an ideal research subject for you. She begins every phone conversation with a so, usually a request for something. My son (her ex-) also starts an abnormal amount of sentences with so, but often these are more of the non-sequitur type of introducing unrelated, often off the wall, topics. “So I’m out of gas and I have to work tomorrow.” “So, my babysitter is out of town.” “So I know you drove all night but… etc., etc.”

    Reply
  17. Joyce Marshall -  August 26, 2013 - 1:17 pm

    Thank you so(!) much for this topic. The sentence-initiating “So” has been grating on my nerves for at least that last two years, and of course I hear it more and more as the months, weeks and days tick by. To me it seems to be a new form of “Like…” It diffuses the speaker’s seriousness, but more problematically her/his authority. I hear it almost always from a bona fide expert when he/she is being interviewed. Heaven forbid that we should have clear possession of cogent information! This “So” jag we’re on speaks volumes about our culture and what it deems to be acceptable attitudes and the value it now puts on intellectual achievement.

    Reply
  18. GingerlyWaysIsBack -  August 26, 2013 - 10:17 am

    uhhhh so, who cares..lol
    why is this important…that’s what should be pointed out
    otherwise this is like people talking about
    grass being green

    Reply
  19. K Ramanathan -  August 25, 2013 - 8:25 am

    Father: “So, Exams over?”
    Son: ‘So Happy’.
    Father: “So hard the History paper?”
    Son: ‘Not so’. All about so and so events in so many words’
    Father: “So, how was Science?”
    Son: ‘So so’.

    So so meaning below average; so widely used in India!

    Reply
    • Carlos -  May 22, 2014 - 7:29 pm

      Nice way of showing that it can be correct to start several sentences in a row with “so” .

      Unfortunately the educated types who use it on NPR like to do it when they’re answering questions!! Aaaaarrg!!! X(

      Reply
  20. Colleen -  August 24, 2013 - 1:01 pm

    I’m so glad to find this discussion! I HATE this new trend of using “so” to begin an answer to a question. It’s lazy and incredibly annoying.

    Reply
  21. Don -  August 23, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    So, my theory of America’s fascination with replying to questions with the the word “so” is tied to self importance. It smacks of intillectual snobbery and annoys me to no end!!!!!!! So, there you have it.

    Reply
  22. Denise -  August 23, 2013 - 11:47 am

    I use so in the beginning of conversations all the time. I use it to tell the listener to pay attention to my point of what came before. My boss took offense one time to me using it and actually had a discussion with me about it. Lol…so I think its quite ok to use it and i dont care who i offend.

    Reply
  23. Miles -  August 22, 2013 - 4:43 pm

    I seem to hear the new usage of the initial “so” mostly in radio interviews with academics or scientists. They always begin their learned responses with “so” instead of, say, “well,” or some other lead-in to their response. My impression has been that it is just an affectation started by some admired academic and picked up by students and colleagues to keep up. Maybe my problem is that I listen to too many radio interviews with academics.

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  24. Wabbajack -  August 22, 2013 - 2:03 am

    I use “basically” as my default “uh” or “um”.

    “When you get water up your nose it hurts, basically. But it stops after basically a few seconds, so that’s all right… Basically.”

    It gets to the point where I forget what basically even means.

    Reply
  25. MB -  August 21, 2013 - 6:30 pm

    What is “so’ supposed to mean in the first place?

    Reply
  26. Danny -  August 21, 2013 - 2:30 pm

    Sew buttons on ice cream.
    So there.
    So tell me …
    So in all seriousness, I’m generally a prescriptivist ass at heart, but I can’t get my panties in a bunch about this manner of speaking. What bothers me more is the use of “historical present.” For example, “So President Lincoln is sitting in his box in Ford Theatre, and his wife Mary is by his side. When suddenly J.W. Boothe bursts in …” As opposed to ” …. WAS sitting …. WAS by … burst in ….”

    Reply
  27. Nazli -  August 21, 2013 - 12:52 pm

    What??????????

    Reply
  28. Japster -  August 21, 2013 - 10:06 am

    So, the consensus seems to be that it is annoying, however it has become an epidemic. The problem that any living language has is that it continues to change and the usage of words literally changes the meaning and even the definitions of the words that make up that language. Without these changes the language dies. So, we must accept that the colloquialisms and slang usages may actually become the preferred at some point and the traditional meanings and usages may become obsolete as so many other words have hithertofore.

    Reply
  29. person -  August 21, 2013 - 9:48 am

    My use of the word varies depending on the situation but I have come to a conclusion that I ,myself(as well as people I associate with)tend to utilize this ever so popular “so” in the following scenario

    (set the scene a party of a mutual friend)
    (exes left alone while people are elsewhere)
    guy:so I heard you and my gf had fun shopping last week
    girl:yeah it was fun hanging out with your fling of the month
    guy:that’s nice ….
    (awkward silence)
    guy:soooooo………………….
    girl:soooooo…………………………………..

    (as you can tell it is usually used to fill an awkard silence these days it also works in text conversations)

    Reply
  30. KellyGofAL -  August 21, 2013 - 7:58 am

    Excellent article. Now, let’s get on with a discussion about the ubiquitous incorrect usages of “myself”. I’m irritated every single day about it.

    Reply
  31. Chris -  August 21, 2013 - 4:47 am

    Interesting Article! Thanks. My pennyworth:

    I really do not like this tendency to answer questions by beginning with the word “so”.
    I hear it often on Radio 4′s Today programme, usually from expert scientists. In the past such responses would normally have begun with the word “Well…” or a similar start-up phrase.
    Perhaps I will get used to it in time but at the moment it makes me wince.
    A made up example would be:
    Radio Presenter: “….We have in the radio car Dr Jane Pipette who has written numerous papers on the decline of the Welsh dormouse…Dr Pipette, why is this happening and is it getting worse?”
    Dr Pipette: ” So, our research shows….”
    Me: “Ahhhhhhhhhh…. Noooooooooooooooooo!”
    Welsh Dormouse: *Sob*

    Reply
  32. Hlawncheu Moya -  August 21, 2013 - 3:19 am

    Like Jordan, I’d like to re-comment Joe’s comment. Here it goes: “…when they disagreed with something….”. Initially, he’d not better use “with” instead of “to” So long as “something” is replaced with “someone”.

    Reply
  33. Hlawncheu Moya -  August 21, 2013 - 3:04 am

    So, it’s really good, oh, rather fascinating. So are you? Yea, I know you are So.

    Reply
  34. Brad -  August 20, 2013 - 11:06 pm

    Speaker 1: Dr. Johnson, when did you start studying this disorder?
    Speaker 2: So, I had noticed certain patients seemed to…

    WRONG!

    Speaker 2: Well Speaker 1, I had noticed certain patients seemed to…

    Correct.

    Stop using “so” to answer a question you dumb, uneducated idiots! This is nothing more that Ebonics. It is simply wrong and is an improper use of the word regardless of how much you weave and bob around the issue to make it seem correct while pandering to stupid people who passed English with a D. I know very few young people who can speak properly or God-forbid construct a sentence properly. And we won’t even get started on spelling.

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  35. niki -  August 20, 2013 - 6:31 pm

    very interesting

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  36. Luna -  August 20, 2013 - 5:15 pm

    I believe words such as so and like are being used as failsafes. They compare what the speaker is talking about to the actual event or item being described. If the information isn’t quite accurate, then the speaker can’t really be held accountable. It’s really quite fascinating, how often we use ‘like’ or ‘so’ without thinking. They show a lack of self confidence in the speaker, possibly why so many teenagers use them.

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  37. Sherry -  August 20, 2013 - 8:41 am

    In the casual atmosphere of online blog comments and fb and twitter I’ve developed a habit with “so” being used as an intensifier and spelling it “soo.” I know it’s soo bad, but it just feels right! ;)

    Reply
  38. Shelley -  August 20, 2013 - 8:19 am

    So, I found this article disappointing. I hoped it would discuss how annoying, weak and irrelevant this constant use of “so” is to start sentences. (For example, the one I started with.) It should be noted as poor English, and I agree with Ms. Vazquez, Mr. Haynes, Mr. Charbonneau and others that it’s a filler or crutch word that adds nothing except a sense of dismissal or condescension.
    However, evidently it’s become so universal – among, yes, mostly younger people – that dictionary.com decided to write of its positive qualities. Yes, it can impart informality, but that is more in the mind of the speaker than of the listener, I think.
    It’s maddening to hear even well-credentialed people begin every single interview-response with the word “so”. It IS just a filler word; it is as bad as saying “y’know” or “like” (yes, what about “LIKE”?! Is that a good thing to use now, too?) (“Right” has also now become a catchword..) or even “um” in every sentence.
    The sense of “informality” has more to do with the user’s fear of simply making a forthright, declarative statement than any real ease for the listener. When I was young and more shy, I used many of these fillers but as we mature, we learn to be more courageous in our speech. It’s like when our parents correct us regarding not saying “ain’t”, or saying “Jason and I” rather than “Me and Jason.” Maybe it sounds more comfortable to our friends to speak incorrectly but it’s also like slouching all the time instead of using good posture: it’s not really helping anybody. Stand up and speak proudly!
    Since Dictionary.com is about learning about words, I was surprised. However, maybe it’s good to be positive about things. Still: I abhor this usage of “so” before every answer and feel it sounds extremely unprofessional.

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  39. Steve -  August 20, 2013 - 5:58 am

    It seems to be used to start a response a lot by academics and thoughtful people generally (I haven’t yet noticed it being used by people affecting that quaility). The equivalent to “Clearly” from authorative types and “Obviously” (interchangable with “yeah no”) from less eloquent people. It’s a correct response to a “Why…?” question. Maybe such people are so used to being asked “Why…?” that they become conditioned to respond to everything with a slightly strained patience and a slow, careful explanation.

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  40. shabnam -  August 20, 2013 - 1:17 am

    it’s so perfect

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  41. weddinginloves -  August 20, 2013 - 12:38 am

    SO,I like tlhis words,Also have a lot of meaning

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  42. Karen -  August 19, 2013 - 2:34 pm

    I noticed a while back I was using “so” at the beginning of a sentence as a way of getting someone’s attention when initiating a conversation. It’s kind of a “fluff” word–they don’t have to hear it and I don’t have to repeat myself if I’d started with important information.

    I have, therefore, begun to erase “so” when I find myself typing it. I already have their attention!

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  43. Nancy -  August 19, 2013 - 10:25 am

    I started hearing it a couple of years ago, mostly from academics, research scientists and that ilk. I attribute it to the speaker taking a moment to gather his thoughts to try to turn a complex thought into something that (he thinks) a lay person will understand.

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  44. Will Saunders -  August 19, 2013 - 9:57 am

    I observed a speaker begin his introduction by saying, “So, I’m John Doe and welcome to the bla bla conference.” That is such an awkward way of speaking. I’ve also heard speakers respond to a question from the audience by beginning with “So” as a language management tool. Where do people learn such things?

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  45. James Appleton -  August 19, 2013 - 9:34 am

    I only noticed how much I used the sentence-initial ‘so’ when I found myself wanting to use it when speaking Spanish and finding there was no appropriate translation. It’s actually quite difficult to stop myself wanting to have a ‘lead-in’, as it were, to whatever I’m about to say. So yes, I do feel it has a function and I have no desire to see it disappear, because I have clearly proven to myself that I am incapable of properly communicating without it.

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  46. Cyberquill -  August 19, 2013 - 8:37 am

    So, like, starting, like, a sentence with “so” is, like, considered bad form?

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  47. Cielo -  August 18, 2013 - 8:39 pm

    So, sow, sew… a needle pulling thread!

    Reply
  48. jd -  August 18, 2013 - 6:20 pm

    if “so” had a tone to it – like “really” – to convey a genuine meaning, the speaker would be justified in using it. but as it is presently employed, to begin an answer to the initial question in an interview, it is, pardon the george carlin-esque vulgarity, bullshit. it is a meaningless fad; and worse than meaningless, it is perverse, as it implies a continuation on the speaker’s part of what he or she has already been speaking, which is false, as nothing has gone before that initial question and answer. what is truly amazing about its viral use is that one hears it continually among suit and tie wearing mainstreamers on cnbc: the stock market crowd. one expects bullshit shibboleths on, say, npr – but this sort of cultural epidemic on cnbc is, really, truly, beyond explanation. or maybe it’s simply (pity the poor manenkind) a manifestation of conformism. hearing it used now is a total groan, like another bullshit vocal characteristic: the disingenuous tone of voice. lah-dee-DAH-dah-dah, lah-dee-DAH-dah-dah. these latter types are all just so guilelessly precious, aren’t they?

    Reply
  49. Holly -  August 17, 2013 - 11:31 pm

    Moist, and feces

    Reply
  50. Jonathan -  August 17, 2013 - 12:30 pm

    This entire thing reeks of prescriptivism…

    Reply
  51. Lyla -  August 17, 2013 - 5:09 am

    Finally, someone is verbalizing my pet peeve. This is something to consider or discuss. It seems that there is a certain class among us using this initial “so”. I listen to NPR almost all day and I count at least a dozen usages in one afternoon, While various conversations with different walks of life thru my day (I’m a barber) it very rarely pops up. Regional, yes, maybe. But also class present? Only the educated and/or somewhat nerdy say it. Not the redneck on the corner. Just an observation

    Reply
  52. Jeffrey -  August 16, 2013 - 5:41 am

    I know a person that uses the word “so” almost at the beginning of every statement in a conversation. This is both condescending and rude to the listener. I think from now on, when I hear the word so… I am going to physically turn away from this person as she speaks to signal my disdain.

    Reply
  53. Sergey P -  August 15, 2013 - 10:33 pm

    @Kooky Cookie:

    While both “hypothetical” and “theoretical” have a meaning of “abstract” or “imagined in the mind”, the “hypothetical” has additional counter-factual nuance of “something that did not (yet) happen, but only could (or could not) happen”.

    “Theoretical” has more generic meaning of “abstract modelling of facts/situation”. “Hypothetical” adds the emphasis that it is ONLY a modelling, and probably NOT the case in reality.

    Reply
  54. Sergey P -  August 15, 2013 - 10:15 pm

    @Jordan Charbonneau: the language itself is very “redundant”. That’s what makes it at times beautiful, and at times ugly. Trying to reduce the sentences to the bare minimum needed to convey an idea will not and can not! Exclamation mark.

    Also, I would argue that the expression “whether or not” emphasizes the “not” part, and thus adds a subtle meaning. The sentence “Whether the information is actually relevant..” would not hint at such an “ironic” possibility, in which the speaker (perhaps intentionally) is trying to hint at the relevancy of the conveyed information, while in fact it is not relevant at all.

    Reply
  55. Myra -  August 15, 2013 - 6:25 pm

    It’s funny that my name is in here..

    Reply
  56. Joe -  August 15, 2013 - 9:55 am

    I hope it’s a passing fad. It sounds terrible. Very annoying. Can’t stand it. Remember when people used to say “HELLOOOO!” loudly when they disagreed with something someone said, did, or what they were doing.

    So…I hope it’s a passing fad. So…It sounds terrible. So…Very annoying. So…Can’t stand it. So…Remember when people used to say “HELLOOOO!” loudly when they disagreed with something someone said, did, or what they were doing”
    So…stop already!

    Reply
  57. Patrick -  August 14, 2013 - 1:00 pm

    I recently saw a compilation of TV interviews where the interviewee began each response with the word “so,” followed by a brief pause before starting the response where it seemingly should have begun initially. It comes off to me as a way to sound like you’re tying things together, when you’re not – simply a way to sound smarter than you are. I’m always wary of being fed something when people respond to me in this way.

    Reply
  58. Lorien -  August 14, 2013 - 11:39 am

    Gives a new meaning to Kipling’s “Just so” stories :)

    Reply
  59. Thomas Mansell -  August 14, 2013 - 9:31 am

    I agree with the comments made by Marie Vazquez (August 9, 10:20 a.m.) and Kaelian (August 12, 12:35 a.m.), and with those attributed to Grant Barrett at the start of this article.

    I am pleased to say I have never heard this usage in real life, but I find it very irritating when I hear it used on radio or television – usually by politicans interested only in trotting out their prepared lines but seeking to give at least the impression that they follow from the question asked, or by scientists labouring under the pressure of trying to condense often complicated and inconclusive research into media-friendly soundbites. (Notice how in the first example above, “Dr Johnson” does not appear to be actually answering the question.)

    It is especially annoying as the initial word in answering an opening question, because (as others have pointed out) it reveals that the speaker implicitly feels this to be the continuation of some kind of monologue which has not in fact been taking place – or at least shouldn’t have been (even internally) if the interviewee had truly been listening to the interviewer. Of course there is an element of artifice about any such interview – but the way this use of “so” both utterly undermines and at the same time seeks to reinforce the pretence that this is a natural conversation really jars.

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  60. mdhennessy -  August 14, 2013 - 8:45 am

    I also see the introductory “So” as a story starter or, more generally, an introduction to a new context. Examples: “So, you have these two molecules, and they do this thing. Along comes a catalyst and everything changes.” Or “So, I was in the store looking for widgets. Suddenly I saw these things!” It signals the start of an explanation, more than a word or two. It suggests “hear me out” or “follow this thread”.

    Reply
  61. toffo3619 -  August 14, 2013 - 8:44 am

    Italians have been using “Allora” for hundreds of years, as we use “So” in English, to give the speaker a split second to think about what they want to say.

    Reply
  62. Ian -  August 13, 2013 - 8:29 pm

    If it’s good enough for Peter Gabriel it’s good enough for me!

    Reply
  63. marseee -  August 13, 2013 - 8:17 pm

    i’ve noticed this VERY often when listening to science friday on npr. it’s often used by guests with scientific backgrouds when responding to questions or statements from the host. it seems like a way to introduce their research or findings. i’ve also noticed it is used in response to yes/no questions, in order to begin explaining a stance on an issue.

    Reply
  64. Ben -  August 13, 2013 - 2:11 pm

    Being more storyteller than linguist, I think there are a few other ways to define a leading so, or even the trailing “so… yeah” Anne MF mentioned previously.

    “So there I was…” – used to jump into the middle of the action when telling a story; an attention grabber.

    “So?” – seeking commentary on previous acts or events.

    “So… yeah.” – indicating that the judgment should be obvious given the preceding tale; used awkwardly in embarrassment to indicate that if one can’t draw a conclusion based on prior info, perhaps the prior info shouldn’t have been said.

    “So it exploded?” – used to indicate causation; replacing “because of what you were just talking about.”

    In all four of the above examples, “so” is used to reference prior material. The interesting exception is when it’s used to shift gears completely and distance the following from the previous. “So, what are you doing this weekend?” It’s fascinating that a word could gain a dialectic use without misuse or abuse.

    Reply
  65. Shelterdogg -  August 13, 2013 - 1:40 pm

    So it’s ok to do it now?
    So I suspected.

    Reply
  66. Daniel -  August 13, 2013 - 9:28 am

    I have not seen the over-use of “so” that much, but I have seen the abuse of conjunctions, such as “but”, in a new line, or even worse, in a new paragraph. Oh, my! Look at the second sentence in the third paragraph above! it is as bad as the abuse of “like”.

    Reply
  67. jasifmalik -  August 12, 2013 - 10:50 pm

    I have observed this happening to myself. I love the way people use it to elevate their speech in a group of lovelies…………….

    Reply
  68. Locke -  August 12, 2013 - 9:09 pm

    Many of these comments are dumb!

    Reply
  69. Locke -  August 12, 2013 - 9:08 pm

    I LOVE THIS WEBSITE!!!!

    Reply
  70. Ray -  August 12, 2013 - 2:05 pm

    “So,” is a continuity-checker (which has to be a pun of sorts) in speech form language used to indicate a variety of otherwise printed punctuations for the purpose of introducing, starting, stopping, ending, continuing, and gapfilling.

    The only thing worse, is, “Well–so–?” (indicating not-so-well-but-anyway…).

    Can you believe—dictionary.com does not have the word ‘whoshewhatshis’ which everybody used-to-know is a directory like a telephone book “who’s-he-what’s-his…” What’s, the dictionary coming-to…?!? “Well–So–?”

    Reply
  71. chuck -  August 12, 2013 - 11:08 am

    In the mid 1990′s I worked at a west coast tech firm where the leading “So, ” was ingrained in every up-and-coming manager’s vocabulary. “So” was so predictable that at a national sales meeting I nudged a new guy and bet that the first word out of the next speaker, whoever it was, would be “So”. Easy money.

    Reply
  72. lexicon woman -  August 12, 2013 - 8:27 am

    I know of a lady attorney who uses the word “so” to put people on the spot both in her profession and her personal relationships. If someone words something vaguely or in such a way that she feels they are attempting to manipulate her, she responds with, “and so?…..” then just stops talking until they clarify what they mean or intend by their comment. She uses so to lob the conversation back over the transom at them.

    Reply
  73. replier -  August 12, 2013 - 8:09 am

    Teddy. We use a lot of words that are our ‘crutch’ words. SO is a crutch word. Phrases can also be crutch words…like “it’s driving me crazy”, “I can’t believe it” “that’s awesome!” Crutch words and words of embellishment.

    Reply
  74. Kooky Cookie -  August 12, 2013 - 7:02 am

    This is a very fascinating article! I didn’t realize how common “so” has become in everyday speech! It always seemed so natural!
    My friends and I often start our sentences with “so.” For example, “So, what are you doing this weekend?” I never really thought about.

    To Dictionary.com: I don’t know about other people, but the difference between hypothetical and theoretical has always been unclear to me. Could you clear that up sometime?

    To Haggy: Thanks for the information on psychiatrists and headshrinkers! For some reason, I couldn’t post another comment on the moon article! Well anyway, thanks for getting me started! I’ll be sure to look into that further!

    Reply
  75. Tim -  August 12, 2013 - 5:25 am

    I have also noticed the use of the expression “Thank You so much” in the past year or so. There I have two uses of the word so in the same sentence. Interesting.

    Reply
  76. Matt Butts -  August 12, 2013 - 4:45 am

    Whenever somebody says “so…” I promptly sing, “a needle pulling thread.”

    Reply
  77. Kaelian -  August 12, 2013 - 12:35 am

    Oh my goodness. NO. I noticed this trend and I hate it. Every time someone begins a conversation with “so”, I feel confused, because it seems like I missed something, or that they began the conversation in their heads and they vocalised it in the middle of it. Also it has a complacent aura. We should be able to make absolute statements without the fear of seeming less friendly. To make it clear that a conversation is casual or informal (when the tone of voice can’t be heard, or the facial expression can’t be seen), we have other words to begin our sentences, such as “well” and “oh”. To me, the word “so” is more like a connector (like the word “therefore” or “thus”) to a previous sentence or previous paragraph of the same topic. However, it can be used as way to make a smoother transition into a new topic AFTER a conversation has been initiated properly, and a change is desired, or there’s really not much more to be said about the current topic.

    Hahaha. I agree with Teddy about the dangling “so”. I hear the same with the word “but”. It’s like they don’t know how to complete their thoughts, don’t know what else to say, don’t know what to say next, or they want to say more but they’re too lazy. Often someone will say this as they’re walking away, and maybe this is only -my- feeling, but it seems a bit rude.

    Reply
  78. Sean -  August 11, 2013 - 9:43 pm

    Dr Johnson did not resort to pause fillers or such contrivances but immediately commenced his reply;
    “So (in this manner), …”
    followed by the description of the matter that had been enquired after. He recognised precision of speech as a precious faculty. It is one well worth emulating if we wish the ability to say what we mean. Our utterances might then be as notable as his for veritable content, free of verbiage.

    Reply
  79. Victor -  August 11, 2013 - 7:48 pm

    I just googled for the word “onomatopoetic” and was corrected to “onomatopoeic”

    Reply
  80. Kim -  August 11, 2013 - 3:50 pm

    I also have seen “so” used to initiate a sentence as a way of gently bringing up a sensitive topic or perhaps a topic the listener wasn’t expecting to discuss. It’s meant to convey respect, perhaps deference, and sensitivity yet at the same time addressing something that the initiator feels needs to be addressed.

    Reply
  81. Jax -  August 11, 2013 - 10:51 am

    So, I’ve found myself as an over-user. I think another theory as to how it slid into conventional speech is through email. Of course email is a written form of language, but with a distinctly conversational tone, and to create that friendly dialog without facial nuances, we’ve had to insert words like “so” to help create that tone.

    Reply
  82. dennis -  August 11, 2013 - 9:25 am

    @Jordan Charbonneau – spot on. Conveying wisdom or enlightenment.

    Reply
  83. Anne MF -  August 11, 2013 - 8:06 am

    I have the misfortune of listening to my tweenager and her friends use the following to signify that they are done with the thought they have just spoken: “So……….yeah.” The ellipses signify a purposefully awkward long pause. Sometimes it includes “um” as in “So…um…yeah.”

    It is maddening.

    Reply
  84. Abigail -  August 11, 2013 - 7:01 am

    I work for Fortune 100 company. The new thing at our company is to begin a sentence with, “So, so, so, the reason for the increased interest…[insert buzz words and phrases]“. It’s quite annoying and in my mind lessens the speakers authenticity and competence. Unfortunately many of our senior leaders employ this sentence opener so it has trickled down to the masses and is now epidemic. Has anyone else noticed this sentence opener as well?

    Reply
  85. Liz -  August 11, 2013 - 2:04 am

    Looking forward to next week’s article! In Dutch, the dangling so (“dus”) is used very often. I used to think there was more coming, but now I know better. It’s just used as a full stop, mainly. It annoys me so ;-)

    Reply
  86. Frank Haynes -  August 10, 2013 - 8:43 pm

    My observation is that “so” could be dispensed with when used as an introductory, as has become quite common in modern speech in the U.S.. It adds nothing to the sentence that I can detect.

    Take a sample of sentences that use it, then remove “so” and see if you can detect any loss of information.

    Reply
  87. Heather -  August 10, 2013 - 7:08 pm

    What about so what?

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  88. luvmonkey -  August 10, 2013 - 12:25 pm

    “So, what are you doing later?”
    “So, what do you think?”
    “SO! Like I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted…”
    “So, I was talking to my Mom and it’s ok if you come over.”

    I see how they can be continuations of a previous conversation. That artical was a huge info-dump though.

    Reply
  89. Chris -  August 10, 2013 - 12:12 pm

    What about the use of so as an, what, adverb? “I liked it so much.” Or an adjective? “It was so big.” It seems as if these uses should be followed with a “that” — “I liked it so much that I went back for more.” “It was so big that I couldn’t see the top.” The use of “so” as a substitute for “very” or “a lot” and the like is annoying.

    Reply
  90. Teto -  August 10, 2013 - 12:06 pm

    People don’t hear themselves saying, “ya know” usually. My sister was telling me something, used “ya know” so much I started counting instead of listening to her. I finally told her, “you have said “ya know” 12 times already and it has stopped my listening to your comments. Please stop.” She was surprised she was doing it.

    Reply
  91. grammy -  August 10, 2013 - 10:17 am

    I use it to impart the concept that there is information the listener is not aware of, yet. ie a story is beginning

    Reply
  92. Eric -  August 10, 2013 - 8:04 am

    Questioning relevency: “So?” or “So what?”

    Reply
  93. Joe -  August 10, 2013 - 7:39 am

    I believe it’s generational. If my memory serves me well, I only seem to hear it from younger people.

    Reply
  94. john mandel -  August 10, 2013 - 7:14 am

    Italians say “alora”, and Latinos say “mira”, in the same way. they seem to be used to draw attention back.

    Reply
  95. bob peel -  August 10, 2013 - 6:18 am

    Anyone who has not done so should read all the Dictionary.com definition in full. So much to say about so small a word with so few letters and so many interpretations!

    Reply
  96. artistwagoodi -  August 10, 2013 - 5:12 am

    “So?”
    “So, what?”
    “Sew buttons on your underwear, zippers aren’t in style.”

    Reply
  97. Ray -  August 9, 2013 - 6:09 pm

    “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” (by Richard Strauss), is so equivalent to “Thus, spake Zarathustra,” that we use it so in English too. But we don’t adverbize it soely as we do with fro and froely, (which word is in lots of google books, but not in the dictionary, so maybe “froely” is an obs. version of “freely–” Afterall, it’s “to-and-fro” meaning “toward-and-free” not “to-and-from”).

    Reply
  98. Ray -  August 9, 2013 - 5:43 pm

    ‘Oh’, And I also (Heh) use “so” in HTML-scripting (JScript/Javascript/…) where I need a label-mark solely (Heh again!) for Breaking-out from the segment, because it needs no name: it was just a weakness of “natural language” coding that requires such a fallback-construction of labeling–

    e.g. SO:{do-do-do-do-do; IF (check) BREAK SO; ELSE do-do-do-do-more-and-maybe-even-loop-(so)}

    (P.S. And another thing we might look at, is, When, to use a comma after a question-word, Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Which… to clarify, or otherwise keep clarity upfront, for easier reading… Who ate this cake must pay therefor (or therefore, in this case, works too).

    Reply
  99. Ray -  August 9, 2013 - 5:26 pm

    (And don’t call me a “so-and-so…”)

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  100. Ray -  August 9, 2013 - 5:24 pm

    You mean: the so-called, “so-preface…”

    So…?

    Or is it so-so…?

    So–

    Hollywood calls it, “Cut to the chase…”

    Elementary school teachers taught us that “Once Upon A Time…” was obsolete and that we should begin with “And then…”

    So–So–!

    So, It goes…

    And so it goes…

    Reply
  101. teddy -  August 9, 2013 - 11:17 am

    Where is Part II? I’m very interested in reading what you have to say about the dangling “so”. I think it is becoming a national epidemic and it’s driving me crazy! I can’t believe people don’t hear themselves doing this.

    Reply
  102. Pen -  August 9, 2013 - 10:26 am

    In his 2000 translation of “Beowulf”, Seamus Heaney uses “So” as a translation for “Hwaet”. The great poet discusses his reasons for this translation in a W.W. Norton blog, excerpted below.

    http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/beowulf/introbeowulf.htm

    Hwæt w Gr-Dena in gar-dagum
    Þod-cyninga þrym gefrnon,
    H p æþelingas ellen fremedon

    Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because 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:

    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.

    Reply
  103. Marie Vazquez -  August 9, 2013 - 10:20 am

    The use of “so” in recent speech has irked me greatly. I find it dismissive, actually. The respondent is not acknowledging the question directly and appears to be using it as a base to address (or not address, as is so often the case) whatever was being asked. The respondent seems to be taking the listener off on a tangent. The listener then has to infer the connection between the response and the original question. He or she also has to sit through a lot of information that may not be pertinent to the question. The conversation becomes more one sided.

    If it is used to avoid awkward silences as suggested above, it reveals a ubiquitous discomfort with social discourse.

    So, why do you think people are using “so” in so many different ways?

    Reply
  104. David -  August 9, 2013 - 8:23 am

    PS: the frequency of the above use has only increased; similar to the now almost ubiquitous use of “Really?!” with an raising note, used to express exasperation like “Are you kidding me?” I first noticed ‘Really’ with that special tone, around 8 years ago; and I believe it started in the West and moved East.

    Reply
  105. Catlady -  August 9, 2013 - 8:21 am

    What an excellent article! Thank you! I will be back next week!

    Reply
  106. David -  August 9, 2013 - 8:18 am

    I noticed the following usage, in Arizona, as it so happens, for the first time about four years ago:

    The sentence-initial ‘so’ being used where a question was posed by one party, and the second party uses “So..” with a very slight pause; I believe with the intention and successful effect of urging attention by the listener, and acknowledging that a question was asked. The above being rather similar, to one of the longer standing uses of “OK..”. However, the difference, here, if any, I think is that the more recent use of ‘So..’ is done more confidently, and with the a firmer request for attention.

    Reply
  107. Suzieque -  August 9, 2013 - 7:11 am

    I’ve found myself using sentence-initial so frequently. For me, it imparts a more informal tone to a question, hopefully rendering it conversational rather than interrogational. I tend to ask a lot of questions, so this is important for me. So, what do you think?

    Reply
  108. Jordan Charbonneau -  August 9, 2013 - 6:20 am

    But, to the point of the article, I do notice prolific use of “so” in conversations. Interpreted less generously, it sometimes gives the impression that the speaker is about to enlighten the listener (i.e. in a condescending way).

    Reply
  109. Jordan Charbonneau -  August 9, 2013 - 6:17 am

    “Whether or not the information is actually relevant is for the listener to decide,…”

    The “or not” in this sentence is redundant, since you could simply write “Whether the information is actually…”. “whether or not” is the equivalent of “regardless of whether”.

    Reply

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