It’s all I can do to resist beginning this post with “so”

I’d been noticing for some time that more and more people are starting sentences with “so,” formerly known only as a conjunction, so I’m tickled to see that the New York Times printed an article on the subject a few weeks back.

However, I think the article sabotages itself by trying to lump too many different new uses of “so” together, as if these are all related just because they involve (mis)use of the same word. Trying to dissuade journalists from grasping for grand unifying theories is a vain task, of course. But still I don’t know quite what to make of claims like the one in the following quote, or maybe it’s just that I can’t quite picture what it sounds like when someone is going after this particular effect:

“But in the algorithmic times that have come, ‘so’ conveys an algorithmic certitude. It suggests that there is a right answer, which the evidence dictates and which must not be contradicted. Among its synonyms, after all, are ‘consequently,’ ‘thus’ and ‘therefore.'”

If you say so. But considering that we’re talking about new uses of “so,” I’m not sure if making recourse to words that are only its synonyms when it is being used correctly really helps get us anywhere useful.

The particular use of “so” that began catching my ear at least a few years back usually occurs in a specific context. A person with a lot of technical knowledge, such as a scientist, is speaking to a lay person when it becomes clear that the lay person will need some backgrounding before they can understand the answer to a question or some other point that the first person wants to make. (I’m not surprised to read in the article that “Microsoft employees have long argued that the ‘so’ boom began with them,” although, if I may express a peeve about newspaper web sites, this would be a perfect place for a link to some examples.)

Here’s the kind of usage I’m talking about, from an interview for one of the technology case studies I write.

Me: “A lot of industries are affected by fluctuating supply costs and things like that. Why is it so important in your industry in particular that you be able to respond so quickly to those kinds of changes?”

Interviewee: “So we’re really a data company. We sell food, but our products are commodities, so all we can compete on is price. Anything that helps us analyze price and supply data better than or just sooner than our competitor helps us stay on top.”

The knowledge being imparted need not be technical, of course; the same usage could arise when one person is telling another person a story from a context the second person isn’t familiar with.

Person 1: “There I was, in my graduation gown, covered in mud-”

Person 2: “Wait, what?”

Person 1: “So, in my town there was this old disused quarry, and the tradition was, every graduating class of seniors would….” Etc.

There is, for me, a suggestion that the “knowledgeable” person is sort of having to pause the incredible rush of facts and ideas through his head and pick out the pieces that the “ignorant” person needs. (This is most pronounced with usages in more technical conversations.) “So” functions here as a sort of verbal finger hovering over the page, looking for the best place back up to so you can start over and get everyone up to speed.

To my ear, the usage also implies the existence of-or at least the “knowledgeable” person’s belief in the existence of-a power gradient favoring the speaker, if only because it seems clear to the speaker that the other person “needs” the information that will follow. “I know things you don’t know,” it seems to say. “But wait, don’t worry, I’ll share some of them with you.”

Maybe I’m wrong, though, because the idea of using “so” to emphasize or at least point out a power gradient seems kind of the opposite of what Galina Bolden argues that it is used for:

To begin a sentence with “oh,” she said in an e-mail message, is to focus on what you have just remembered and your own concerns. To begin with “so,” she said, is to signal that one’s coming words are chosen for their relevance to the listener.

The ascendancy of “so,” Dr. Bolden said, “suggests that we are concerned with displaying interest for others and downplaying our interest in our own affairs.”

Maybe so, maybe so. Dr. Bolden is a linguist who has apparently written several academic papers about the use of the word in question, so she should know.

Still, for my money, the best description of the usage I’ve been observing comes in the letter to the editor from which I learned about the original article in the first place. Though I don’t quite agree with the writer, a Mr. Ernest Priestley of Seattle, Washington, that the usage is “annoying,” I do agree that:

“Beginning an answer with “so” implies that the answerer is drawing a conclusion from a body of knowledge to which she is privy and the listener is not. She is not just answering; she is explaining. The tone is professorial and slightly condescending.

‘So’ implies expertise and special knowledge, enhancing the weight of the answer and the status of the answerer. Hence, I suppose, the quick spread of this usage into venues other than the college lecture hall and the high-tech community.”

Sounds about right to me.

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