On language: The little word that could

August 22, 2015

So 1

We were at the American Museum of Natural History in New York recently, and I asked a uniformed employee of the museum how to get to the Imax theater.

He said something like the following: “So you go through that door to your left, turn left again and walk all the way through the gift shop and through the exit at the other end, and you’ll come right to the theater.”

“So.”

He started that sentence with “so.”

It wasn’t “so” as a conjunction introducing a dependent clause: “So that we’re not late for the theater, we’re catching the 9:30 train.”

It wasn’t “so” implying prior knowledge of the subject about to be introduced: “So, how was your trip to Peoria?”

And it wasn’t “so” used as an adverb: “So many people declined the invitation that we had to cancel the party.

So 2

In this usage, “so” may be best identified as an interjection that conveys no meaning of its own. I have seen the usage defined as a “linguistic pause.”

In that sense, it is similar to the words “say” and “why,” which one hears in the films noir of the 1940s: “Say, for two cents I’d knock your block off!”

I first noticed this usage of “so” while listening to an interview on NPR perhaps seven or eight years ago, but I find that it has been around much longer than that and is the topic of conversation on a lot of web sites devoted to language.

Some folks are quite passionate in their demands that the usage be stopped.

A writer on one business-oriented web site argued that using “so” in that way while engaged in commerce insults your listener, undermines your credibility, and signals that you are not altogether comfortable with what you’re about to say. (I thought there was something suspicious about that museum guide, and we did get lost on the way to the Imax.)

so 3

One person responding to that writer pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me—that comedians for generations have used that construction: “So a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar ….”

For me, whose life is all about the English language, this is an interesting example of how our manner of speech evolves over time. Often, change occurs without us noticing it. When did movie tough guys stop using “say”? But in this case it’s a specimen that we can observe and that probably is harming no one except linguistic fussbudgets, and that probably will fade away just as innocently as it came.

Incidentally, the bartender looked up and said, “So what is this—some kind of a joke?”

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One Response to “On language: The little word that could”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    That bartender probably assumed he was dealing wtih some old so-and-so’s — the sort of fellas who might say, “So’s your old man.” So what? They were, so to speak, customers, and as he looked them over, the barkeep thought to himself, “So far, so good.”

    So there we are.

    🙂

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