Question: “Jordan, I faithfully read and enjoy your Current column, but I think you missed the mark on Marlena’s question (November 18, 2014) about the irritating use of ‘so.’ I think you didn’t answer the question she asked, because (Sorry, Marlena) I think she didn’t ask her question very well. You tackled the issue of the misuse of ‘so’ as a conjunction. I believe, though, that Marlena–and I share her irritation–is troubled by the use of ‘so’ as what I’ve seen called, variously, a ‘filler,’ ‘introduction word,’ ‘pause word,’ or the new ‘um’ or ‘well’ or ‘ya know’. The best highfalutin term I could find is ‘discourse marker.’ I’m talking about the meaningless use of ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence, often in reply to a question.” – (Richard Dickinson)
Answer: Writing these columns is easy with engaged readers like you and Marlena who are both passionate and happy to do a little research for me. (In the interest of editorial transparency: For space reasons I had to cut off the end of Richard’s e-mail in which he cites a Salon article on the subject of “so.”)
The rabbit hole does go deep on this one, as you note.
In 2013, the Guardian published an article by psychologist and author Oliver James about “so” replacing “look” as the word of choice for “packaged self-presentation.”
Also in 2013, Salon columnist Daniel Rigney penned an unflattering look at the spread of so-called “so-sentences,” which he deemed a “verbal virus.”
New York Times writer Anand Giridharadas in 2010 traces the origin of these “so-sentences” to the tech sector via a 1999 book on Silicon Valley by journalist Michael Lewis (“The New New Thing”). Giridharadas suggests that “so” appeals to the mind of a programmer, who writes code in a certain, logical order and might, therefore, order his speech the same way.
Is there anything to that notion? Should you avoid starting sentences with “so?” If you believe some critics, it makes you sound like you’re reading from a script – not a great idea when you’re trying to speak genuinely. Then again, others say it helps create an appearance of logical connection between statements – good if you’re trying to convince someone of something. My advice would be the same as in most situations: consider your message, consider your audience, and modify your language as appropriate.