So . . .

Last week, Dave Hoffman posted about omitting needless words in exposition. In comments, I satirized his point, leading off with “So, . . .” and included dozens of other habitually-used words or phrases likewise lacking meaning.

My nudge reacted against an idiomatic fashion to begin sentences with “So,” in speech and writing, especially on blogs (including by esteemed contributors to this one). Aside from proponents of expressive clarity considering so a useless word when beginning a sentence, it may be improper English.

Exceptions recognize utility in narrow contexts, such as for poetry (“So lovely was the lavender lilac”), impression (“So these colonies stood strong”) or in rousing speeches (“So I say to my family and friends”) and in the familiar “So what?”

Current usage expands well beyond the exceptions. The word begins sentences like: “So, I read yesterday;” “So an interesting thread appears over at . . .;” and “So, the Supreme Court has decided . . . .” (No convention seems to have formed about whether a comma follows the word when it starts a sentence.)

Shall law professors or other academics encourage students to begin sentences with “So” in class discussion and research papers?    Do lawyers or judges appreciate that lead off? Is it appealing to readers of the English language in general? I doubt it.

I am convinced it is not good for professors to follow the idiomatic fashion. A few years ago, my law school interviewed an entry-level candidate who began sentences with “So” often. Many colleagues cited the annoyance as a negative. They tried to suppress the habit’s significance when evaluating the overall record, recognizing the idiomatic fashion, but it hurt the candidate. We did not extend an offer.

I cannot recall ever writing a sentence beginning with the word So in this usage, and hope I never do. I confess to using it in conversation on too many occasions, capitulating to fashion, yet wish I had not and hope to cut back.  It would help if everyone else cut it out too.

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6 Responses

  1. BDG says:

    So, Seamus Heaney translates the opening word of Beowulf, “Hwaet,” as “So.” For him, it’s a way of centering the listener on the world of the story — “an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

    In another interview (which I can’t find a link to right now), he relates how the realization that “hwaet” could be translated as “So” was what convinced him to translate the whole poem.

    A powerful word, in other words. Not to be abandoned. But maybe also not to be overused.

  2. poet says:

    Beowulf is poetry.

  3. Dave says:

    Big difference between spoken and written language. In written language, we can strive for parsimony of expression because we can work on crafting language through the editing process. In spoken language, we lack this opportunity. Moreover, many words (like “so” or “well”) aren’t really uttered to convey denotative meaning but to connote something (e.g., deference, courtesy). These words may also be verbal placeholders used while the speaker pauses to think. I admire people whose speech sounds like they’re reading a well-written book, but I’m not one of them, and I’m pretty sympathetic to people who share this shortcoming. Finally, I wonder whether we want verbal speech to approximate formal written English. Perhaps that would be boring. There may well be appealing advantages to having speech match the informal and spontaneous character of daily life rather than the more regimented norms of written discourse.

  4. I side with Rob Heverly at the Faculty Lounge on this one:

    Persuasive to me on this point, however, is this entry from the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style:

    So. A. Beginning Sentences with.
    Like And and But, So is a good word for beginning a sentence. Each of these three is the informal equivalent of the heavier and longer conjunctive adverb (Additionally, However, and Consequently or Therefore). Rhetoric, not grammar, is what counts here. The shorter word affords a brisker pace—e.g.: “Under a state law enacted last year, prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, but the state Supreme Court has ruled that the change cannot be applied retroactively. So Mark Brown is out walking around” (Lancaster New Era).

    The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “so” that appears to approve of its use at the start of a sentence, “5. c. An introductory particle,” with the example, “So, let me see: my apron.” Another definition (10.b.) declares “so” can be used as “an introductory particle, without a preceding statement (but freq. implying one).” Given my reading, I don’t think starting a sentence with the word “so” breaks any clear rule of grammar or usage. [….]

    For Larry’s point, if we think of it more as “use words when you mean to use words, or else even good words can be used superfluously,” I’d agree. As an argument against the word “so” as a way to start sentences, I don’t think I do.


  5. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Dave: Fair enough. I’d be happy to concentrate on the written rather than oral context.

    Patrick: Thanks for the link. I’d likewise be happy to concentrate on the manifest problem of overuse of so to begin a sentence, in the usage I describe, than rigid adherence to a rule banning so to begin a sentence.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’m glad Larry has given the spoken language a reprieve. In so doing, he’s spared a Yiddishism that fairly drips with connotative meaning (though when appropriate, the original “Nu?” is preferable), e.g.:

    Q: Hi, how are you?
    A: So, how should I be?