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?”

And all that jazz

November 28, 2009

 

PAUL ANKA

One of my Facebook friends — and a former newspaper colleague — remarked today that she likes to start sentences with “and” and “but,” an indulgence we share. In fact, I make a point of telling my students that while they shouldn’t use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence while they are in the stifling atmosphere of academia, they should have at it once they’re writing on their own.

This got me to thinking about song lyrics that begin with “and,” only because four popped into my head immediately.

The first was “My Way,” which begins: “And now the end is near, and I must face the final curtain.” Paul Anka wrote that lyric, and according to him, it was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s announcement that he was going to quit show business.

FRANK SINATRA

The melody was written by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux for a French song. “Comme d’habitude,” which means something like “As is my habit.” Anka’s lyrics, I understand, have no relationship to the originals but were meant to go along with Sinatra’s mood at the time.

There have been notable covers of the song by Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, and Dorothy Squires.

Another lyric in this category was written by Johnny Mercer for a popular version of “The Song of the Indian Guest” from the opera “Sadko” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I mentioned this here recently in connection with Mercer’s centennial. Mercer’s version is known as “Song of India,” and it begins: “And still the snowy Himalayas rise in ancient majesty before our eyes ….”

MARIO LANZA

Mario Lanza made a fine recording of that song, and Lanza also made a wonderful recording of “They’ll Never Believe Me,” which was written by Herbert Reynolds and Jerome Kern to help rescue an imported British musical, “The Girl From Utah,” in 1914. The refrain, which usually begins the song, starts: “And when I tell them how beautiful you are, they’ll never believe me ….”

The last song that occurred to me was “And I love her so,” which was written by Don McLean but is most widely associated with Perry Como.

And like that.

 

 

 

 

 

I suppose if the president of these United States — and especially His Articulacy — can be criticized for his grammar, anyone is fair game.

And so, Dan Neil, writing in the Los Angeles Times, laces into National Geographic, of all things, for a faux pas of its own. Obama has taken lumps for imprecise use of the first-person singular personal pronoun — though heaven knows he gets enough practice — but with National Geographic the issue is adverbial.

To be specific, Neil points out that the National Geographic Channel has been running a spot announcement designed to reinforce “the brand” with largely vacant language. One gets the impression that Neil could live with the vacuous message if only it didn’t lead up to this tag line: “Live curious!”

Wiley Publishing, Inc.

In other words, friends, enrich your existence by being curious — but you got that the first time. How much of a tempest this is depends on the size of your teapot, but it does call to mind the campaign that those of a certain age will remember: “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.” This slogan was used by Winston from 1954 until 1972, and its longevity had everything in the world to do with its effectiveness. English teachers and grammarians bristled and fumed, perhaps enlightening some who would have been unaware that a phrase in such a comparative construction must be introduced by “as,” not “like.” At the same time, the sticklers succeeded in calling even more attention to the rapidly growing cigarette brand.

At a certain point, Winston responded to the criticism with a new slogan: “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?” Presumably, “none of the above” was not an option.

For Dan Neil’s column, click HERE.