One of the signature features of Valley Girl–speak is the frequent use of the word “like.” It’s been subject to parody and ridicule, and you’ll readily find articles about how to improve your working vocabulary by excising like from your lexicon.
A new candidate targeted for removal is the word “so” in the initial position in sentences, which has been flagged as being an empty filler word. As one commentator on Twitter put it:
All kinds of people begin ALL their responses to questions with “So”. ‘So’ is a CONJUNCTION not a ‘filler’ & it’s used maybe 10% of the time as a conjunction. What’s up w/ that?
Over the past few years, you might have noticed a slight uptick in prefatory so and, as Geoff Nunberg puts it, while most people don’t care, some do care very much.
A chief objection, as shown above, is that beginning a statement with so is inelegant because it’s wrong to begin a sentence with a conjunction. That’s balderdash on two counts: One, it’s OK to begin a sentence with a conjunction. Two, so in such cases isn’t functioning as a conjunction.
Other objections are more along the lines of “I hate it.” Last year, NPR’s Weekend Edition asked listeners to list the most misused words or phrases in English, and sentence-initial so ranked second, only surpassed by “between you and I.”
So what is ‘so’?
According to Zipf’s law, the most common words in English tend to be short ones, and they’re the workhorses of the lexicon. So is a case in point. It can be
• An adverb expressing the degree of an adjective (I’ve never been so disappointed).
• A conjunction (I was upset, so I ate some red cherries).
• A pronoun (If you’d like to make a complaint, do so).
• An adjective (That isn’t so).
• An interjection (So we meet at last).
It is the last sense, as an interjection, that’s under discussion here. As you focus more closely on so, you find that it has multiple functions. As with the word like, it briefly cues the reader or listener as to how what follows should be interpreted or it signals the desired flow of communication. Back to the word like, consider the following:
“So, I’m like, ‘Where did he go?’ and she’s like ‘I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.’”
This “like” has been described as working at several levels. It indicates that the speaker should not be interrupted as the narration is ongoing, and it suggests that what follows may not be verbatim but is a synopsis of what was said.
You may have noticed in old movies that, some 80 or 90 years ago, a common way to begin sentences was with the word say, as in, “Say, haven’t I seen you around here before?” Interjectory so can serve a similar function.
For example, if you’re out walking and suddenly realize you’ve forgotten something and have to retrace your steps, it’s customary to pause, make a kind of an “Aw, shucks, darn it” gesture and then turn around, because if you abruptly stopped and swiveled 180 degrees, it would look bizarre. An initial so can be like that, cueing the listener to prepare for a particular kind of statement or question, easing gently into the matter.
Let’s look at some of the ways prefatory so works in action:
• Considering what has been said thus far: “So, having said that, …”
• Expressing doubt: “So you’re telling me that you own a pangolin.”
• Indicating a question will follow: “So, what shall we have for dinner?”
• Requesting confirmation: “So before I install the software I should close all open programs?”
• Declaring a conclusion: “So you’re a liar.”
And, as noted, it can be a conjunction. In the prefatory position, it implies something unstated.
So you finally pulled it off. [You’ve been trying to do that for some time, and…]
In the song So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by the Byrds, what function is so performing? Conceivably it could be a synonym for “if,” but there’s a deeper nuance to it, something more akin to amused skepticism, i.e., “O-ho, you want to be a rock-and-roll star, do you?”
To be sure, some of these cases could be described as adverbial or adjectival, but labeling them as such isn’t as useful as determining what so is accomplishing in each given context. As shown, prefatory so does have discourse-marking functions and its removal can change the intended meaning:
You’re a liar. [Flat accusation.]
So you’re a liar. [I have demonstrated that you are lying].
Much in the same way that modems have error-correcting routines, discourse markers make communication easier. In formal writing, you can normally omit an introductory so, yet as Olivia Blair notes, “But if you spoke the way you write, people wouldn’t be able to understand you because it’s hard to process that much information.”
In a meta-study of five papers on the topic, researchers noted that filler words like I mean, you know, like, uh, and um are used as pauses, and are seen at equal frequency across all genders, ages, and socioeconomic levels. Discourse markers, however, like I mean, you know, like, and so are more frequently used by women, young people, and “more conscientious” people. In other words, more sophisticated speakers use discourse markers to improve their intelligibility.
When so is used at the beginning of questions and answers, it can signal the desire to change direction or begin a new topic, establishing an “interactional agenda.” Intonation can also factor into this.
A long, drawn out “So…” slightly rising at the end indicates something approximate to “Given all the things I’ve said…” and is often apologetic. Whereas a short, clipped “So,” with a sharp, falling intonation, can signal to the listener that “discussion is over now and the matter is settled.”
The Business Insider link above posits that answering all questions with a prefatory so could be emergent from Silicon Valley, indicative of programmer lingo, in which it is common. It also casts doubt on this hypothesis. In my experience, people who habitually use prefatory so tend to be highly educated. Professors, doctors, lawyers, and similar professionals.
Ergo, it has become more commonplace because people want to sound educated and they take note of this expression as it is used by skilled speakers. Nota bene: If overused, so is a verbal tic and will generate opprobrium. Use it judiciously.