So, annoying

You have no idea how much of a struggle it’s been not to start this post with the word ‘So’.

For that is our subject today, dear reader. More particularly, the increasingly pervasive practice of begiinning sentences with this poor, innocent syllable. To borrow another common modern usage: WTF?

This has been going on for years now, but the trend seems to be gathering momentum. This was brought home to me recently when I was quietly minding my own business and watching TV’s greatest programme, ‘Pointless’. As he does, Xander asked one of the contestants what his job was. ‘So, I’m a civil servant’ (or whatever) was the response. Two supplementary questions followed, and each reply began with the same entirely superfluous preface.

Why? (oh why, oh why?)

So (adverb, here used correctly, if I may say…er, so) strongly do I feel about this that I was moved to compose this rant.

So I did some research about this linguistic abomination phenomenon. There are several schools of thought about its origins: the one I found most convincing was that it emerged as a conversational ‘tic’ among Microsoft programmers back in the seventies. Of course it may be that I’m just naturally inclined to believe the worst when it comes to people who work in IT.

However, given that Mark Zuckerberg, the indefinably irritating founder of Facebook, apparently picked up his own tendency to start sentences with ‘so’ from this so-urce, I feel that this natural animosity is perfectly justified.

Go away. So to speak.

Go away. So to speak.

So much more important than the origins, however, are the ways that the word is (ab)used today. In order to understand the misuse, though, we should first of all look at its correct usage. Once we’ve done that then by definition everything else must be wrong. Right? ‘

So’ may be used either as an adverb or a conjunction. As an adverb its purpose is descriptive, as a conjunction it serves to connect – words, clauses or sentences. It’s a perfectly acceptable word to use. But only in the proper way.

So-me defenders of the practice argue that it is used simply as an alternative to ‘Errm‘ as a way of gaining a little time to marshal one’s thoughts before launching into a reply. This, though, ignores the fact that ‘so’ is a real word and is therefore (if my fading memories of linguistic philosophy don’t deceive me) ‘value-loaded’. In other words, it comes with its own baggage of meaning.

By contrast ‘Errm’ itself has no meaning and so can’t taint the subsequent reply. Everybody uses it  – I certainly do, although not always (often, as I grope to formulate a response, I’ll just proffer a silent slack-jawed look of utter incomprehension). Anyway, the point about ‘Errm’ is that there’s nothing wrong with it and it doesn’t need to be replaced by so-mething else.

In my view, starting a sentence with ‘so’, used incorrectly, has potentially more sinister motives, particularly when practiced by liars politicians, company spokespersons and the PR people who coach them.

Answering a question is a way to get a point across, be it a statement or an opinion. Either way, it’s the continuation of a dialogue that began with the question. The problem that these people often have is that they may not have been asked the ‘proper’ question. To begin a reply with ‘so’ here is, in effect, to change the subject and give the answer they wanted to give – regardless of the question. Either that, or to avoid answering an awkward question at all.

Now, nobody seriously expects a politician to give an honest answer to an honest question, but there are even apologists for this usage of ‘so’. It’s been suggested, for example, that rather than being a form of paragraph break, it’s trying to persuade the questioner that the answer really is coherent with what’s gone before. Even when it isn’t.

Alternatively, the speaker is – whether consciously or unconsciously – distancing himself from the party line that he’s about to espouse.

So really they’re just trying to help us.

And if you think I believe that then you must have gone so-ft in the head.




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