Punctuating “So” at the Beginning of a Sentence

By Maeve Maddox

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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.

Related posts:
Beginning a Sentence with And or But
Can And or But Begin a Sentence?
Can You Start Sentences with “And” or “But”?

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16 Responses to “Punctuating “So” at the Beginning of a Sentence”

  • Johnny04

    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?

  • Bill

    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.

  • Heather

    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.

  • venqax

    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.

  • Robert Philemon Kanyike

    Just as AND refers to an additional I feel even SO, BUT would not start a sentence but rather supplement the previous remarks. For instance in that example given above referring to the interview. So how was the interview. The questioning person was already aware of the interview. Thanks

  • Bayard (By’erd)

    Starting a sentence with the conjunction “so” is mindless. It shows, that the speaker is not prepared to answer/ reply to anything. To me it’s annoying listening to a person start their speaking this way. Especially those individuals in a position of authority/training. Those individuals sound as though they have no idea what they are talking about. Notice I didn’t use that word once !

  • Terry K

    The use of the word, so, to begin a conversation becomes more irritating every time I hear it. Supposed well educated and people in authority continue to verbally address others with the first word, so. There many words in the English language to use and many ways to begin a conversation, such as, “I would like to visit with you about the Smith-Jones case, do you have a minute”? Or, Hi, are you busy or do you have time talk to discuss benefits? Not ever, So, I talked Miss King and she said she was going to a meeting at 3.

  • Phil

    Beginning a sentence in conversation with the word “so” makes the speaker sound stupid. The usage creates the impression that the speaker wants to sound intelligent. It reminds me of every idiot who years ago prefaced sentences with “basically” as if something illuminating was about to be revealed.

    It is just filler. And it’s driving me nuts. Please just stop it or I will continue to cut you off with my interjection of “…so your mamma what?”

  • Mom

    The problem is that ‘so’ at the beginning of answer that is not cause and effect makes you sound like an IDIOT.

    ‘why did you park in the garage?’ ‘so that my car does not get wet.’ [correct]

    contrast:

    ‘when did you get that car?’ ‘so, i went shopping yesterday and saw it on the way home.’ [all of our IQ’s just decreased 1.8 points, reading that; sorry]

  • Donald Morgan

    Starting a sentence with ” SO” indicates to me that a previous statement was made or a conversation with another party. It lets me hanging ! So, I wonder what was said before.

  • Danny Dixon

    The conjunction “so” when used in the sense of “therefore” is not an error.
    But (!) take, for example, examples, often heard in political commentary when a specific question is asked and the word “so” is used, almost like a start gunshot in a track and field race, to begin the sentence with no reference point at all to conclude a previously expressed thought. To use “so” in another manner seems incorrect.
    Example of incorrect usage:
    [Reporter]: What do you think about the recent Congressional debate on prison reform?
    [Congress Person]: So, the White House has proposed legislation for prison reform; we think there will be bipartisan support for upcoming legislation.

  • Apove

    While I can appreciate somewhat that “so” has become a “verbal tic” (As if we need more stressors to concern our self-awareness with, in this burnout age, when we just want to speak the way we feel.) Never beginning a sentence with “so” in dialogue sounds robotic. I most notice it when trained customer service foreigners speak to us on phones. They are never casual in their vernacular, and thus come off cold, superficial, and non-relatable. This is especially the case when they fall short of the knowledge or solution we seek. I believe language ever evolves and this should be acknowledged. Not all words mean what they once did. Our expressions evolve also.

  • Apove

    To not use the terms “so” or “basically” deprives the communication feature of human beings some pleasure in simple, “get-to-the-point” jest, humor and wit.

    Spelling it out for overcomplicated persons will not help you get promoted in any institution EXCEPT a school or university. It is not real world advice. In fact, I’ve found, speaking “by the books” keeps you out of ranks, and speaking with humor pulls you up the ranks.

    One comes off as one who “overthinks” or has “OCD” when one tries to keep language THAT strictly Latinate.

    I had to evolve and become more casual, and that’s what corporate America seems to appreciate more is most cases. And I’m still considered “pompous” by the way I speak in average terms.

    I have embraced the casual approach, because it pays me. So it must be preferred my most everyone else, as well.

  • David lloyd

    Starting a sentence with the conjunction “so” is, for me, synonymous with liberal elites. When I hear it used it is normally a signal to me not to listen to what a person is saying.

  • Kim

    Starting a sentence or reply with “so” or “basically” drives me NUTS! My ears close and mind shuts down. It’s usually used by people trying to sound intelligent

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