So It Turns Out That Everyone’s Starting Sentences With ‘So’

Ernest Borgnine as Marty

So my favorite recent language article is a piece by Anand Giridharadas that appeared in The New York Times last year. It’s about the use of the word so in speech, specifically the custom of starting non-interrogatory sentences with so, specifically among academics and other members of the chattering classes. It’s apparently been around for a while. The article quotes Michael Lewis’s 1999 book, The New New Thing: ”When a computer programmer answers a question, he often begins with the word ‘so.”’ Giridharadas also says, intriguingly, “Microsoft employees have long argued that the ‘so’ boom began with them.”

I had been only dimly aware of this before reading Giridharadas; after reading him, I feel I cannot escape it. This may have to do with the fact that I’m an NPR power-listener, and so is to NPR interviewees as dude is to fraternity brothers. When Jason Barnes, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Idaho, appeared on Science Friday a couple of weeks ago, he used so 45 times in a relatively brief segment. (I got the transcript via Lexis-Nexis and counted them, that’s damn how).

Host Ira Flatow asked Barnes why he thought it would take “a couple of years” to find “an earthlike planet,” whereupon Hayes unleashed a veritable Milky Way of sos:

Ah, a great question. So [1] the technique that Kepler is using to find planets is called the transit technique. So [2] it’s actually very difficult to just go out with a telescope and take a picture of a planet around another star and the reason for that is that stars are really bright and they’re very far away from us, so [3] the planets that are near them are really close to them in the sky. So [4] if you try to take a picture of them, they’re sort of washed out by the glare of the star. …

So [5] our technique—we’re using a smarter way to find planets and that’s where we wait. As the planets orbit around their star, we wait until the planet passes between the star and earth. So [6] essentially then, if you were looking at the star, you’d see the shadow of the planet, so [7] we don’t actually see that shadow. …

The ones I’ve numbered 3, 4, 6 and 7 are traditional sos: a conjunction that implies a logical connection between what you’ve just said (in the beginning of the sentence or in the previous sentence) and what you’re about to say, a kind of homespun therefore or as a result. The new new thing, seen in 1, 2 and 5, is initiating a thought with the word—which is often followed, implicitly or explicitly, by the phrase it turns out that.

(There are other venerable sentence-starting sos. One of them kicks off a question: “So what do you want to do tonight, Marty?” Another mildly challenges the addressee, as the Byrds did when they sang, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star.”)

The new So stands at the end of a continuum of sentence-starters that begins with with Uh or Um (which say, “I didn’t really expect your question and am not sure how to answer it, so give me a minute”) and continues with Well (“I didn’t expect the question, but I’ve got an answer and here it comes”) and Oh (“You have presented me some new information; I have  absorbed it.”) So says, “I understand the question and how it displays your incomplete knowledge of the subject. What follows is an answer that will help you comprehend what’s really going on and, in addition, suggest a unified theory of the reality.”

It’s a cool move; mad props to the anonymous Microsoft engineer who invented it. But by this point, it’s so over.

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