So What’s Up With So?

Why do people start sentences with the word ‘so’ and why do I feel compelled to understand this linguistic trend?  At first, I was only dimly aware of the word ‘so’ popping up at the beginning of non-interrogatory sentences.  So, I’m not going to the party at the lake.  Then I read this post on Facebook: So we had dinner at the museum.Finally, when a young woman stood at a podium and said, So we’re having a fundraising event…, I said to myself: what’s up with ‘so’?

How did this word, formerly used as a conjunction, intensifier, and adverb suddenly ascend to the position of prominence at the beginning of sentences?  What caused ‘so’ to merit the privilege of initiating a thought and introducing content?

Upon consideration, the use of the word ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence seemed to imply that the speaker and I were midstream in an ongoing conversation–even though we weren’t.  Starting with ‘so’ allows the speaker to skip the work of orienting the listener with the implied information leading to whatever conclusion starts the conversation.  Perhaps people who say ‘so’ are busy and need to conserve words by cutting conjunctions in half. Or maybe there is a larger trend in speech away from conventional conversation toward more casual, rule-free communication.  People who put ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence are in tune with the latest speech fashion: cool.

Even if you don’t lay awake at night pondering the ‘so’ epidemic, you might be interested to know that professionals can pinpoint the origin of a linguistic trend with the same accuracy investigators can trace a forest fire to a cigarette butt thrown from a car at a precise time and place.

In a NYT essay by Anan Giriharadas I learned that while writing his book, The New New Thing, Michael Lewis found ‘so’ endemic to Silicon Valley.  Microsoft employees claimed it as indigenous to Redmond, Washington, with the rest of their rich lexicon of geek-speak and corporate jive.  Employees at Hewlett Packard survived boring meetings by counting the number of ‘so’s.  A joke even circulated: What’s the sound of Santa Claus at an HP Christmas party? “So so so!”…In immigrant filled technology firms, the word ‘so’ democratized talk by replacing a world of transitions with a catchall.

So why do I care that ‘so’ is starting sentences? (I did it).  Because writers are wired to notice things, especially things that influence human dynamics such as a change in speech fashion.  Close observation of the choices a person makes in personal expression–whether in attire or speech–is key to understanding character, motivation, and, yes, fears.

Bonus speech fashion trivia:  Did you know the phrase ‘just sayin’ is the equivalent of ‘with all due respect’?

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