So; are you one of those people who hate to hear a sentence start with the word “so”?
Or are you someone who abhors the use of “so” as an intensifier? (“Thank you so much.”)
Or perhaps you’re still parroting the law laid down by your language teacher that sentences should not start with a conjunction or end with a preposition?
Or are you like me, and embarrassed that yet another article about the word “so” has been started with the word “so”?
I was watching the 2014 movie Comet a few days ago, and at one point (@16:30) the male character criticizes the female character for saying “so” a lot. Later on, he holds it up as one of the things that he loves so much about her.
It’s a minefield out there, isn’t it?
So May I Start a Sentence With a Conjunction?
The Chicago Manual of Style is quite clear about the legitimacy of starting a sentence with a conjunction. It states that a substantial percentage of first-class writing contains sentences that start with a conjunction, and goes on to quote an assertion on the subject from 1938. (The quote is too long to reproduce here, but a search for the exact phrase “groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one” should take you to the quote.)
So that’s cleared up conjunctions in general. Let’s move on to “so” specifically.
Mind You, “So” Has Become a Special Case
As I was researching for this article, I came across the terms “discourse marker” and “discourse connective”. How I wish my youth had included an opportunity to go to university, where I might have learned about such things! But thank goodness for the internet – I can read material, search deeper, gather opinions, and synthesise my findings into a thousand or so words of entertaining information.
Discourse markers and discourse connectives are words or phrases that we throw into our conversations when we want to signal a change in subject or tack, give a hint that what we’re about to say should be noted, or modify the rhythm of a sentence.
There are also discourse markers/connectives that become used (and then overused) due to the pressures of fashion. Liberal sprinklings of “like” is a ubiquitous modern example, but “I would like to say”, “To be honest”, “Mind you”, and “After all” have been conversation staples for so long that few would question them. Yet I suspect that it was fashion that granted them entry into everyday conversation. While “like” is a different kind of discourse marker from the others, they’re all, nevertheless, discourse markers that many people use habitually but not always appropriately.
Which brings us to the subject of discourse marker sub-categorization.
One website I read, quotes the late William Safire, who refers to “hesitation forms” and “tee-up words”. Another source quotes a scholar who lists the uses of discourse markers – a list that includes serving as filler or delaying tactic, prefacing a response or reaction, and bracketing the discourse. In my opinion, the use of “so” that so many people are so upset about is the “tee-up” scenario. It’s a verbal cue – a tap on the shoulder – a low-key “read my lips” discourse marker.
So… “So” Is So Fashionable These Days…
The long-running TV sitcom Friends made “so” a fashionable intensifier (or so I read – I never was a great fan; probably a result of my desire to be different, just like everyone else). “That is so not fair” is a highly likely example from that show. But so far, I haven’t found any evidence that Friends is being blamed for the rapid increase in the use of “so” at the beginning of a sentence. Yet it has become a feature of modern informal speech, so by definition, it is fashionable.
There are several self-appointed protectors of our language out there berating all and sundry for perpetuating what they see as a fashion faux pas, but no one seems to have positively identified the source of what I’m sure they regard as the contagion. Possible candidates include the polyglot workers in Silicon Valley and our antipodean friends, who (it is claimed) use it as a device for defending a weak position (although I was unable to find any examples).
Apparently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is a big “so” guy, so perhaps the IT industry in general might be to blame. Over the course of a 40-year career in IT I’ve noticed that it was responsible for the distortion (some would say hijacking) of many words and phrases; “DMZ” springs instantly to mind.
Opinions Are So Strong on the Subject
While researching for this article, I read many articles (and comments thereon) that revealed the range of opinions held by people of this little word. An English equivalent of L’Académie française was advocated by some. Many people claim that they switch channels whenever a speaker starts a sentence with “so”. At the other end of the spectrum, people point to the use of many other discourse markers through the ages by scholars and the great unwashed alike. In between, there are many instances of the people who claim to abhor the practice of using “so” to start a sentence.
The most compelling material that I found on the issue was on two websites; one called seedmagazine.com, and the other called slate.com in a podcast in the Lexicon Valley series that it hosts. I have no idea about the credentials of the contributors to these sites, but the material resonated with me. Here are the links – see what you think.
The Long and the Short
I would never consider starting a sentence with “so” in a formal business document unless I saw a truly compelling need that couldn’t be satisfied using a different sentence structure.
I would most certainly use it in dialogue in a play if the character’s personality and background indicated that it would be appropriate.
As you’ve seen, I’ve used it (and other discourse markers) in this article; but I’ve used it mostly for effect.
People who either set themselves up as protectors of a pure English language, or who by their passionate criticism come to be regarded as protectors, are in a precarious position – for example, one vociferous critic of “so” has been quoted as having used exactly that construct elsewhere in his writings.
English is a wonderfully frustrating language to speak and write. Its adaptability and keenness to adopt words from other languages are its strengths. Let’s hope it never becomes regulated by an “English Academy”.
And so, by the way, to be honest, that’s all I intend to write about the subject.
I hope that you can make the connection between the title of this piece and its subject matter.
Please Help Improve Yonder Pedant’s Ramblings
- Did I miss a typo? (I’ll feel bad when you tell me, but I’d rather you did tell me!)
- Did I write something that makes you want to turn green and burst out of your shirt?
- Do you have any better examples that you would share and allow me to use?
If so, please let me know by leaving a comment.