So. That’s no way to start a sentence, much less answer a question. Or is it? “So,” as Ben Yagoda wrote on this blog last month, is a word in transition, taking on newly expanded, assertively vague meanings. Its use as a sentence opener (“So, I just went to Mexico”) instead of a conjunction (“We were hungry, so we ate”) is on the rise, though no one agrees on where it originates or exactly what it means. Jonathan Lethem described his character Perkus Tooth’s use of it in his 2009 novel, Chronic City, after Tooth starts a conversation by saying, “So, I’ll lend you my own copy of Echolalia, even though I never lend anything. Because I think you ought to see it.”
“This ‘so’ of Perkus’s—his habit of introducing any subject as if in resumption of earlier talk,” Lethem’s narrator explains, “wasn’t in any way coercive. Rather, it was as if Perkus had startled himself from a daydream, heard an egging voice in his head and mistaken it for yours.”
But the usage is hardly novel. It appears in Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translates the opening word, “Hwaet” as “so”), and in Shakespeare (“So this is the Forest of Arden,” says Rosalind in As You Like It).
What’s new is its growing—and bewildering—use in response to questions. In a recent meeting, I asked my colleagues how we were going to compile a contact list for a project we were planning. “So we have a program that will do this,” someone responded. “So?” What had I missed? The speaker seemed to be rejoining a previous conversation; he was talking not in response to me, but in spite of me, at once eliding what I’d said and continuing from it. I think he meant “Well,” (I even think he meant well), and was probably not aware that his comment was anti-semantic. Still, the usage conveys a pushy disregard for whatever precedes it.
Boing Boing readers were recently nettled by the high rate of “so” delivered in response to questions on National Public Radio, particularly by science experts, and specifically on the show Science Friday. As one noted, “I’d say this usage of ‘so’ was a synonym for ‘um,’ except that there isn’t even any hesitation before moving on to the rest of the sentence. It’s just spoken as if it actually meant something contextually, but it’s just tacked on without meaning.”
The misuse of “so” as a conjunction with a lost clause is generally more confounding than contrarian. But when “so” scoots to the end of a sentence, the effect is downright antisocial. At a 2011 Book Expo America panel, for example, one author repeatedly punctuated her sentences with an inconclusive “so” as (approximately) follows: “I’ve always been interested in definitions of race, so.” Then she looked around hopefully, as if to solicit help clambering out of her own construction.
This periodic “so” has the opposite effect of the full frontal “so.” It’s tentative (leaving the listener to guess what was not said) and passive aggressive (the speaker at once declines to complete the sentence and continues to hold the floor ). Just like “whatever,” the grungy catchphrase of the aughts, “so,” in this context, communicates refusal. I’ll talk, the speaker says, but I’m only going so far. And like “whatever,” it’s a cop out for people who distrust language–and don’t mind stranding you on the far side of an ellipsis. Their “so” forces you to interrupt them in order to resume the discussion.
And so this modest little conjunction woke up one day to find itself on the rack, no longer merely linking clauses by standing between them, but also stretching, head to toe, along them. A new twist on it compounds the torture: “So, yeah.” Used to close a statement, it’s a popular teen affectation, but adults–who should know better—employ it too. The sentence is not finished, the meaning is not clarified, and yet—how nice! The speaker agrees with whatever he did not say! “This person was a huge influence on me, so, yeah.” No argument there.
“So.” It’s a way of starting a sentence, answering a question, and taunting grammarphiles who would like to see it resume its proper station, anchored by a relevant clause and a reason for being. But having migrated forward, then backward, before nodding in agreement with itself, its shows no sign of complying. And so it goes.
Margot Mifflin is an associate professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York and director of the arts and culture program at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman.