Geeks like to prefix sentences, questions and answers both, with “So, …” The comma stands, in speech, either for a pause or for a drawing-out of the “o”. This is so common that it’s exceptional, in my profession, not to do it.
I hear it from grey-haired pony-tailed hippie geeks, tenured authorities on graphics algorithms, and recent-immigrant colleagues where it’s the only confident English in the sentence. Both genders, all ages. What do you think it means?
Well, I did research and harvested hypotheses.
Discourse Marker · In Implementing incipient actions: The discourse marker ‘so’ in English conversation (PDF, 2007) Galina B. Bolden ends up fairly “so”-friendly: “The article shows that this marker is a resource for establishing discourse coherence and, more fundamentally, accomplishing understanding.” She also notes that prior research on the subject is “surprisingly scarce”.
The paper is interesting, offering good evidence for leading-“so” as a multipurpose conversational punctuation marker. Two excerpts; first from her section headings.
4. Using ‘so’ to implement pending interactional agendas
4.1. Warrants for initiating the interaction
4.2. Pursuing interactional agendas
5. Using ‘so’ to constitute interactional agendas
5.1. Launching new courses of action
5.2. Reopening closed action trajectories
And the first sentence of the Conclusion: “The article has specified pragmatic functions of the ‘connective’ ‘so’ in English conversation.” Yup.
But it’s not geek-specific in the slighest, not talking about the leading “so” that I hear so much of at work every day.
History · Ms Bolden only found research back to 2004, but in 2010’s Follow My Logic? A Connective Word Takes the Lead (NY Times), Anand Giridharadas takes it all the way back to Chaucer, before noting that Michael Lewis first noted the geek usage in 1999’s The New New Thing.
But then that article goes off the rails into arm-wavey speculation without much behind it.
Don’t use it! · Hunter Thurman’s How a Popular Two-Letter Word Is Undermining Your Credibility (2014, Fast Company) says that “we business types need to drop the ‘so’ for three main reasons”, which boil down to not wanting to sound scripted.
The subtext, although he doesn’t come right out and say it, is that you don’t want to sound like one of those awful geeks who say “So” in an irritating way when they’re trying to dumb down something important so the boss can understand.
Rehash · Jane Solomon’s Do you use “so” to manage conversations? (2013, blog.dictionary.com) has interesting examples but is mostly a research survey, mentioning a couple of the pieces I have here, and others I haven’t bothered with. Perhaps worth visiting for the examples and links, but not much in the way of new ideas.
Like Tony’s look · Oliver James, in So, here’s a carefully packaged sentence that shows me in my best light (2013, the Guardian) is in grumpy-old-man territory, but does make the useful observation that Tony Blair began utterances with “Look, …”; leaving an aftertaste on the linguistic palate much like leading-“so”.
But “look” is irritating in a way that “so” isn’t.
What geeks mean · It’s just an emphasizer, that’s all, with a suggestion that what follows is the result of some thinking. I wouldn’t, in the middle of a conversation, say “So, is that method called ‘erase task‘ or ‘delete task’?” But I would say “So, when a task is erased, how do we make sure that its dependencies are harvested and don’t hang around clogging up the queue space?”
This works whether the thinking in question happened just now, or you just asked someone a question on a subject that’s been on their mind for years: “Do you think e-books are going to kill paper?” “So…”
There’s nothing intrinsically geeky about it, it’s just that subcultures pick up linguistic habits, and this is one of ours.
Anyhow, that was the premise I set out to argue in this piece. But then Steve Wilson tweeted: Sentences have always had full stops, Now “so” provides a “full start”. Seriously.
I have to say I like that, although it glosses over the result-of-thought dimension. He amplifies: The full stop (period) says “I’m done with that concise thought”. The Full Start “so” says “I’m ready to say what I think”. Or, “I’m ready to ask this question that’s been on my mind.”