Punctuating “So” at the Beginning of a Sentence
A reader remarked on my punctuation of so at the beginning of several sentences in a recent post:
No commas after “so” as you have used here in your examples!
Here are two of the offending sentences:
So, how was the interview?
So, what should we do now?
These examples appear in a discussion of a use of so that is common in spoken English. The written form I gave them represents a style of casual speech. It’s questionable if so can even be called a conjunction in contexts in which it is difficult or impossible to discern what thoughts are being joined.
Formal written English treats the punctuation of so at the beginning of a sentence differently. Some speakers feel strongly that the conjunction so shouldn’t begin a sentence at all:
I almost fainted when I read the email about the acceptability of beginning sentences with [a conjunction].
I’m firmly in the camp that believes starting a sentence with a conjunction is an error.
Although such feelings persist, authorities like The Chicago Manual of Style do not share them:
There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.—CMS, 5.206.
In formal writing, in contrast to a casual style, a so that begins a sentence is not followed by a comma.
Lucius Caesar died at Massilia in 2 CE.; two years later, Gaius Caesar succumbed to a wound he received fighting against Armenian nationalists. So Augustus adopted Tiberius as his son in 4 CE and got him tribunician power and consular imperium for ten years.
Note: If a beginning so is followed by a parenthetical expression, a set of commas is needed:
So, misinterpreting Ragland’s order, Nolan told Lucan to send the Light Brigade on a frontal attack against the Russian guns.
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5 Responses to “Punctuating “So” at the Beginning of a Sentence”
I’m guilty of using “so” to begin a sentence. I use it so much that it annoys me. I’m trying to cut down, but I don’t know how. It would be helpful if you could show how you would rewrite the given examples without so. I find “so Augustus adopted Tiberius” is the most natural way of saying it. Thanks.
Michael W. Perry
Good article, but I’m left wondering about a detail.
In reasoning out an argument, where “so” points to a conclusion, I can see that “so” doesn’t need a comma after it. But in quoted conversation, I feel it’d be useful for conveying the pause that many speakers would make in their speech.
“So, you feel that I’m not telling you the truth,” said John.
Any opinions on that?
I’m with M. Perry about using a comma when the tone of reported speech calls for it. Overall, however, I think it’s best to minimize using “so” at the start of a sentence. It’s become a verbal tic and it’s overused by many. Harry Shearer airs samples of overuse on “Le Show” sometimes, and it’s comical to hear people—usually young and nervous—starting every sentence with “so” during interviews.
I’m in agreement with the NYT on this usage. To paraphrase, “so” has become something like a verbal tic; it appears in people’s speech relentlessly instead of “um” or its variants and is then imitated in writing, where it is typically unnecessary. When editing, I take it out; its use, moreover, can add a childish effect to the writer’s text, which I imagine nobody intends or wants.
I think with this type of thing it entirely depends on the effect intended. Certainly it can be a tic, like “like” or “ya know”, and in such cases it would only be appropriate in writing as dialogue. But also in written English it is a legitimate device, I think, to convey something akin to informality-for-effect in addition to simple childishness. So there’s that.