When “So” Becomes Annoying

By Maeve Maddox

The tiny English word so has numerous uses. Merriam-Webster gives it separate entries as adverb, conjunction, adjective, and pronoun.

Most of the time, little so goes about its business unnoticed, but one of its functions has been provoking heated discussion on the Web: the use of so as “a discourse marker.”

The term “discourse marker” was coined in the 1960s to describe “a word or phrase whose function is to organize discourse into segments and situate a clause, sentence, etc., within a larger context.”

Here are some words and phrases commonly used as discourse markers in speech:

well
you know
like
now
I think
you see
oh
I mean
OK
actually

These are words we all interject into speech for reasons that have nothing to do with grammar. For example:

Well, I was a little worried.

Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet.

You know, not everyone shares your opinion on that.

OK, let’s take a vote.

I think I’ll go now.

These markers serve no grammatical function, but they do advance discourse in various ways.

As a discourse marker at the beginning of a sentence, so may do any of the following:

initiate discourse
So, how was the interview?

mark a shift in topic or activity
So, what should we do now?

begin an explanation
So, disconnect the power cord and remove the back panel.

preface the response to any question
Interviewer: What is the focus of your research?
Interview subject: So, I study samples of creek water to track pollution.

avoid giving a direct answer
Interviewer: Why did you lay off so many workers?
Interview subject: So, our sales have been stagnant for some time.

The use of so as a sentence-starter has provoked numerous discussions on the Web.

Business consultant Hunter Thurman gives three reasons for avoiding the practice of beginning a sentence with so:

1. “So” insults your audience.
2. “So undermines your credibility.
3. “So” demonstrates that you’re not 100% comfortable with what you’re saying.

PR consultant Cherry Chapell, on the other hand, sees this use of so as “a good way of giving yourself time to think.”

Linguistics professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros suggests that a speaker who starts an answer with so “is saying what he wants to say, like a politician—but trying to make it sound like it’s an answer to the question.”

Like many linguistic targets of criticism, so as a sentence-starter draws extreme reactions from the general public. I’ve seen comments that question the intelligence of speakers who begin sentences with so and accuse them of defiling the language.

I’ve seen other comments that cite the fact that Seamus Heaney translated the opening “Hwaet” of Beowulf as “So!” as proof that so must be all right in any context.

The reality is that sometimes so is an appropriate sentence-starter, and sometimes it is an irritant.

When a speaker habitually begins sentences with so, listeners may react in one of two ways. Some are able to filter out the so’s and concentrate on content. Others, however, are distracted by them and may tune out the content as they count the so’s.

When beginning a sentence with so becomes a verbal tic, it has lost its usefulness as a discourse marker.

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9 Responses to “When “So” Becomes Annoying”

  • Bill

    If you ever go to a story slam—an event in which amateur story tellers compete to tell the best five-minute stories on a given topic—you’ll find that nearly all of the young ones begin their story with “so,” e.g., “So I was living in an old building in a bad neighborhood …”
    The N.Y. Times reported recently that Americans use “so” as an intensifier far more than the English and attribute this to the popularity of the 90s show “Friends,” which had lines like, “You are so not going to that party with him.”

  • Lillian Freiler

    No commas after “so” as you have used here in your examples!

  • Dave

    The Chicago Manual of Style refers to sentence-starting words like “so,” “well,” and “OK” as “throat-clearing words” and says there’s nothing wrong with them. Such words give the speaker a moment to gather his or her thoughts.

    I’ve read a few articles over the past year about this topic. What disappoints me is that all these articles (including the article above) deal only with spoken English, not written English. I can accept a sentence-starting “so” when the person is speaking, as long as it’s not EVERY sentence. When people are writing, however, why do they need throat-clearing words? Just skip “so” and get to the point. Or if you do write “so,” go back and delete it. You have that luxury when writing, so there’s no need to begin a sentence with “so.”

  • Jim Porter

    So what are you saying here?

    So we may or may not use so as a sentence starter?

    So what? Is it an old argument, or a new rule?

    If either, the necessary discussion is so so-so.

  • Cygnifier

    Jim Porter: So hilarious!

  • thebluebird11

    I can’t say I’ve heard “so” used in some ways you gave as examples (like when people are trying to hedge and avoid a direct answer), but as far as overuse of this word, it is the same as overuse of any word. People have been known to have “pools” to count how many times a speaker says “um” (or some other such word). In my job, there is one physician who has a habit of interposing “in terms of” in almost every sentence, even when it is jarringly nonsensical. However, we are not supposed to make too many edits in our line of work; some facilities actually require us to transcribe verbatim (no matter how stupid the doctor sounds). I finally asked my supervisor if we could filter these “in terms of” out (as it made the physician sound so, you know, stupid, and really we don’t want to do that; these documents could end up in court some day). My supervisor looked into it and told us to leave them out unless they made contextual sense. So, we do, and now she sounds much more intelligent. So there you have it.

  • venqax

    @Dave: I am not sure what you mean by articles that only deal with spoken English as opposed to written. Here at DWT, at least, the vast weight of entries deal with writing. In this case, specifically, I think the point is that the uses of “so” discussed are passable in spoken, and certainly in informal spoken, English but is not usually appropriate for writing for various reasons. So, (;)) that isrelevant to writing.

  • Kari

    I think about this all the time while I write. I once read a comment that said anyone who started a sentence with the word ‘so’ was a moron. Now that I think about it, someone who is so judgmental about how someone uses a simple word to express themselves has to have a lot of anger every time he has a conversation. Poor guy!

  • Richard Wheeler

    At the beginning of a sentence, “so” serves as a weak “therefore” or “in conclusion….” A sentence beginning with “so” at the end of a paragraph signals a conclusion or outcome. At the beginning of a written message, however, it causes a cognitive dissonance. It’s like saying “therefore” when nothing came there before. That dissonance is what elicits such strong reactions.

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