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:
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:
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.