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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…”

110 Comments

  1. 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
  2. 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.

    Reply
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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.

    Reply
  7. 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
  8. 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
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