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.”



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Gavin B. (Apr 11 2015, at 23:56)

AUden's take on so

Time can say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you, I would let you know.

...

http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/wh-auden/villanelle-3/

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From: Daycoder (Apr 12 2015, at 00:43)

I find it peculiar when the leading 'So' is used in documentation, bug reports etc.

I always assumed it was a way to get the listener's attention, to engage their comprehension in order not to have to repeat the question or statement.

It can certainly be overused though. One colleague starts practically all his interactions with it. That can come across as arrogant, but after a while just becomes comical.

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From: Karl (Apr 12 2015, at 11:22)

Thanks for the post. It's a verbal tic that I suspect makes geeks feel better than starting a sentence with "uh", though they end up frequently being used together.

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From: John Cowan (Apr 12 2015, at 11:27)

Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf renders the notoriously difficult opening "Hwæt!" as "So.", with a period. In his introduction, he says that this represents a dismissal of whatever conversational subject had come before.

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From: gauden (Apr 12 2015, at 11:29)

The discussion I started on StackOverflow ("So how do you feel about "so" on SO?") about two years ago led to some interesting and humorous comments:

http://meta.stackexchange.com/q/174229/184658

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From: Will Goldie (Apr 12 2015, at 11:40)

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

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From: amk (Apr 12 2015, at 11:47)

https://books.google.com/books?id=mlg7VKOvsZAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=beowulf+seamus+heaney&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TrkqVaSOC478oASw2IL4CQ&ved=0CC8QuwUwAA#v=onepage&q=Conventional%20renderings&f=false

The first word in Beowulf is sometimes translated as "So" (or "Hark", or "Lo") Seamus Heaney explained:

'so' operates as an expression that obliterates all

previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time

functions as an exclamation calling for immediate

attention.

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From: Derek (Apr 12 2015, at 18:29)

Steve Wilson does not make any sense. A period is never verbalized. In fact, a period is a *lack* of verbalization(among other things).

"So," is verbalized. A "full start" to a sentence would be, I don't know, just beginning to speak. Saying anything is a "full start".

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From: Namby Pamby (Apr 13 2015, at 00:18)

You probably know a lot of geeks, and I know a lot of non-geeks. Non-geeks are just as fond of this verbal construction as geeks are, in my experience.

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From: pjm (Apr 13 2015, at 06:25)

I use this a lot but hadn't noticed the pattern in the subculture. I have found that when I write - usually in an entirely different subculture - I need to be conscious of not starting articles or paragraphs with "so" out of habit.

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From: Zellyn Hunter (Apr 13 2015, at 07:56)

"So, ... do you want to get married?" was how I proposed to my wife, standing in her driveway when she got home late at night after hanging out (she took the long way, so I beat her there).

Asked later (by her) what the "so" meant, I came to the conclusion that it was shorthand for, "In light of all that led up to this present moment, ..."

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From: Joe Crawford (Apr 14 2015, at 11:47)

Harry Shearer makes this a regular segment on his long-running radio show / podcast <i>Le Show</i>. http://harryshearer.com/le-show/

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From: len (Apr 19 2015, at 17:13)

So, but so what?

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