So there’s this thing people do now.
At the beginning of their sentences – and sometimes at the end, but more on that later – they add the unnecessary word “so.”
More than a “well,” or an “um,” the classic filler words of the past, or, even worse, the semi-coherent Valley girl “like,” this “so” has especially saturated the conversation of educated people.
So if you haven’t noticed it, you haven’t been listening to enough National Public Radio.
“I have not only noticed it, I have become very conscious of it sometimes,” said Kathleen DeLaney of Williamsville, an avid listener to both NPR and BBC World Service. “It’s just ubiquitous.”
Unlike more familiar uses of the word, including “So how do you know Fred?” or “So, as I was saying,” this new use of what’s called the “sentence-initial ‘so,’ ” uses the word “not as a bridge, not as a transition,” DeLaney said. “It almost sounds like the person is just taking a breath.”
This new “so” sounds similar, whether uttered by a computer specialist in California, a cardiologist in Boston or a political pundit in D.C. First, the ‘so’ is pronounced with precision and force, a clipped sound. There’s nothing soft or languid about it. It’s followed by a pause of a second or more. Then the sentence – usually the answer to a question – begins.
Q: Do you have any research progress to report?
A: So. I was up late last night tracking online trends related to our new marketing strategy ...
Q: What are Hillary Clinton’s power bases?
A: So. Through her years in the public eye, she has been a ...
This somewhat jarring use of “so,” which is suddenly saturating both television and radio airwaves, is not new, but it does appear to be spreading.
On Aug. 9, 2013, Dictionary.com published a blog item titled, “Do you use ‘so’ to manage conversations?” The piece, which drew more than 110 comments, mentioned a 2010 New York Times article about “so” by Anand Giridharadas, which in turn cited journalist Michael Lewis’ 1999 book “The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story.”
Lewis wrote, “When a computer programmer answers a question, he often begins with the word ‘so.’ ” The reason for this construction could have been as significant as the programmer culture’s embrace of lineal and logical thinking or as random as a simple linguistic tic.
Indeed, one of the most famous “so” users is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In a recent New York Times Q&A, he did it repeatedly.
“Question: Can you tell me about Creative Labs?
Zuckerberg: So Facebook is not one thing …”
Asked about the possible Silicon Valley origins of the use, Solomon replied in an email, “Perhaps it began there, and spread to NPR reporters. Maybe it started among NPR personalities at the same time, independently of what was happening among programmers. It’s hard to know from the existing research.”
More than 100 readers of the Dictionary.com post commented on it, which Solomon called “a sizable number.” She said, “Going through the comments is always a fun exercise because our readers have written about examples of the ‘sentence-initial “so” ’ from their own lives, as well as theories on why they think people use it. One man even offered to give us his daughter-in-law’s phone number [as a joke] because he hears her say it all the time.”
Clipped word and a pause
Local radio broadcast and production veteran Jim Pastrick also hears the sentence-starting “so” everywhere. But with his trained ear, Pastrick can precisely describe how the sound of this use is different from “So, as I was saying ...” and even “So, do you come here often?”
In both of those older, more familiar uses, the word “so” is spoken at the same speed and tone as the words that follow, and the pause that separates it from the sentence is extremely brief. In the new usage, Pastrick said, “If you looked at it as a musical scale, you might see that the next word following ‘so’ would be sharp, up a half-step.” This change in tone might serve to emphasize that the speaker is taking the wheel of the conversation. “I wonder, and I’m not sure that this is the case, if the use of ‘so’ implies an evasive course of response,” Pastrick said. “I don’t know. I’m going to pay more attention to this.”
Whether it implies that the person answering the question is reframing the conversation or implying that the questioner must understand some background before getting the answer, the usage has become most obvious in certain populations – the educated, the tech-savvy, the movers and shakers – precisely the type of people being interviewed on national radio and TV.
“I have noticed it prevalently with professional speakers and pundits,” said Pastrick. “I have also heard it in common speech patterns, but it occurs most prevalently on news programs where a pundit speaks on a certain topic or a corporate communications person addresses an issue.”
In October, a “faithful listener” took the issue directly to NPR, probably the place where “so” has most strongly taken hold. M. Hast from Florida wrote, “As I listen to any of the wonderful shows you offer, the highly educated interviewees start their responses (sentences) with the word ‘So.’ I just wonder why this is happening? ... Is this just some new fad? Perhaps I’m not the only one who’s noticed.”
In his reply, Justin from NPR wrote, “We cannot offer to speak on behalf of our guests regarding their individual speech patterns, however we can speculate that the word ‘so’ generally functions as a better verbal pause than ‘um’ while an interviewee may be considering how to phrase their response.”
Pastrick pointed out that “well,” which carries a far different tone from the authoritative “so,” held sway as a sentence-starter for generations. “I think ‘so’ is the new ‘well,’ ” he said. “If you look at previous generations, if you said, ‘Dad, do I need an oil change?’ he might respond, ‘Well, I think you could go another thousand miles.’ ”
So over? Not so fast
In late 2011, after reading Giridharadas’s New York Times piece, Ben Yagoda wrote that he could not escape the new usage of “so.” In a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog “Lingua Franca,” Yagoda wrote, “I’m an NPR power-listener, and ‘so’ is to NPR interviewees as ‘dude’ is to fraternity brothers. When Jason Barnes, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Idaho, appeared on Science Friday a couple of weeks ago, he used ‘so’ 45 times in a relatively brief segment.” (He got a transcript via Lexis-Nexis and counted them.)
Although Yagoda pronounced the trend “so over” at the end of his post, he was so wrong. “So” continues to hold sway on national forums and is even creeping into use in Western New York circles. That does not surprise Pastrick, who said, “It is said often in my business that the trends begin on the coasts and work their way inland.”
But he’s happy about one thing: “ ‘So’ may have replaced another unnecessary word often heard from local reporters in the field.
“It was, for the longest period of time, in vogue to start the response after the question from the anchor with the word ‘now.’ ” “Now, police have cordoned off Genesee Street.’ ‘Now, Mayor Brown tells us ...’”
And even if the sentence-starting “so” falls out of favor, it will survive in other uses. The Dictionary.com post notes that “so” is “highly polysemous. It can be used as an adverb, a conjunction, a pronoun, an interjection, or an adjective.”
And “so” certainly will survive as a final word of a sentence, implying much while saying little, like the classic “Seinfeld” “yada yada.” DeLaney hears many young adults, especially females, tack a long drawn-out, vocally low and gritty-sounding “soooo ...” at the end of a sentence, possibly implying exhaustion, reticence or even bragging. “My brother’s best friend has a big crush on me, soooooo ...”
Dictionary.com was all over that trend, too. An August 2013 post on the sentence-ending “so” drew more than 70 comments, ranging from people who find it useful to those who detest it.
Solomon said that the sentence-initial “so” seems to have some staying power. “It’s been around for at least 15 years at this point, and possibly much longer. It’s proven it’s not a passing fad, and it’s used by the likes of engineers and the NPR demographic. Of course, from the comments on Dictionary.com’s blog post, you’ll see that many people have the response of ‘This is so annoying! I hate it!’ Some people, now that they’re aware of the sentence-initial ‘so,’ will try to cut it out of their speech or call other people out for saying it. But it’s so ubiquitous at this point that it would be hard to have much success in a campaign against ‘so.’”