Very well Known Member
- Nov 22, 2014
- Reaction score
- Los Angeles, CA
Many of the complaints about sentences beginning with "so" are triggered by a specific use of the word that's genuinely new. It's the "so" that you hear from people who can't answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the backstory. I go to the Apple Store and ask the guy at the Genius Bar why my laptop is running slow. He starts by saying, "So, Macs have two kinds of disk permissions ..." If that "so" were a chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, "In which it is explained what the reader must know before his question can be given a proper answer."
Scientists have been using that backstory "so" among themselves since the 1980s, but its recent spread is probably due to the tech boom. In his 2001 book The New New Thing, Michael Lewis noted that programmers always started their answers with "so." That's around the time when I first heard it, working at a Silicon Valley research center. Mark Zuckerberg answers questions with "so" all the time: "So, it comes down to the economics ..." "So one of the services that the government wanted to include ..." But by now that backstory "so" is endemic among members of the explaining classes — the analysts, scientists and policy wonks who populate the Rolodexes of CNBC and The PBS NewsHour.
To my ear, that backstory "so" is merely a little geeky, but it rouses some critics to keening indignation. A BBC host says speakers use it to sound important and intellectual. A columnist at Fast Company warns that it undermines your credibility. A psychologist writes that it's a weasel word that people use to avoid giving a straight answer.
That's a lot to lay on the back of a little blue-collar conjunction like "so." But that backstory "so" can stand in for people's impatience with the experts who use it. When you hear a labor economist or computer scientist begin an answer with "so," they're usually telling us that things are more complicated than we thought, and maybe more complicated than we really want to know. That may be why they were called in in the first place, but as Walter Lippmann once said, the facts exceed our curiosity.
That backstory "so" puts me on guard, too, even when I hear it coming out of my own mouth. Usually it just introduces some background qualification that the question calls out for, as in, "So ... German isn't actually a romance language." But sometimes it announces some nugget of specialized linguistic knowledge that I feel the need to share. If that "so" were a chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, "In which the reader is asked, 'Are you sitting comfortably?' "