So, When Did We Start Introducing Sentences with So?

Alli G. asks: Why do people today always start sentences with so?

englishThe word so has been in English pretty much as long as there has been English (derived from the Old English swæ). It is alternately an adverb (it’s so hot), a conjunction (eat your dinner so you can have dessert), an adjective (Jim is dead, isn’t that so?) and an introductory particle (So, I heard gun shots last night).

For many, the ubiquity of so just to introduce a topic or idea in modern parlance (So, what are we doing?) is troubling and often thought to be a recent addition to the language; however, English speakers have actually been using so to open a sentence since at least the Middle Ages.

For instance, Chaucer (1343-1400) used so as an introductory particle in his poem Troilus and Criseyde:

So graunte hem sone out of this world to pace (So, grant him soon out of this world to pass);

So whan this Calkas knew by calculinge (So, when this Calkas knew by astrological calculation); and

So hyd it wel, I tell it never to mo (So, hide it well, I tell it never to others)

Shakespeare (1564-1616) also introduced sentences with a so. In the poem, The Rape of Lucrece, he wrote:

So guiltless she securely gives good cheer;

So that in venturing ill we leave to be;

So from himself impiety hath wrought;

So thy surviving husband shall remain;

So shall these slaves be king, and though their slave; and

So let thy thoughts, low vassals to thy state’.

In the 18th century, Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), also used so in this way in the novel, Pamela:

So, like a fool, I was ready to cry;

So, with our blessings, and assured prayers for you, more than ourselves, we remain;

So, dear father and mother, it is not disobedience; and

So, taunting again!

As did Richard Brinsley Sherida (1751-1816) in his comedy of manners The Rivals:

So, so! – What, this is some freak, I warrant!

So, come to me presently, and I’ll give you another letter to Sir Lucius;

So, my dear Simplicity, let me give you a little respite;

So, so – here he comes; and

So, that’s done – Well, I’ll fold it up presently.

Nonetheless, the so haters do have a point that it is used much more ubiquitously in recent years. As for why, that’s up for debate, with the commonly touted theory putting the blame on Silicon Valley lingo.

This was first noted by Michael Lewis in The New New Thing (1999)- “When a computer programmer answers a question, he often begins with the word ‘so’.” As to how this came about, it is thought that given the international composition of the typical Silicon Valley work site, where a large number did not speak English as their first language, it became the simple “catchall” word of transition. Over time and frequent usage, it eventually became like a tic and just part of the common speech pattern of those in that industry and then spreading beyond.

A far better starter than um or well, both of which convey uncertainty, so connotes authority, as well as something being thought through. In the same vein, when it is used to answer a question rather than raise a point, inserting a so buys time – either to formulate a response or ignore the question and return to another topic.

In addition, communications professor Galina Bolden of Rutgers University notes that beginning sentences with so, “communicates that the speaker is interested in or concerned about the recipient… It also invokes prior conversations between the speaker and the recipient, drawing on their relationship history.”

So, given its utility and specious appearance of authority, as well as sometimes helping to avoid awkward silence while you think, it is no wonder so has become so popular. Of course, as with all lingual conventions, it can be (and often is) overused. But as using so in this way has been with us since pretty much the beginning of the language and seemingly just keeps increasing in popularity, the so haters might just have to hunker down and endure while the present wave passes.

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  • bob alou

    What about the irritating use of actually? When and why did the use of take and bring get all mangled?

  • Drew D. Saur

    I have been thinking about this for the better part of a year, and have surmised that this usage has become prevalent due to the continuous narratives that we all seem to face in the “Internet age.”

    I feel that “So” is often used today as a courtesy to denote and respect a person’s presumed involvement in the many stories that play roles in our lives these days, be it a political dialog (“So, when Trump opened his mouth last night…”), weather (“So the polar vortex is hitting us again tomorrow…”) or sports and entertainment “(So, my father met Yogi Berra in 1958…”).

    There is so much that we discuss today that is part of an ongoing dialog. “So” is a handy indicator that people employ to honor the connection to the “outer story.”

  • Rob

    Or “literally” when it’s literally figurative. (See what I did there?)

  • Carolina

    Interesting article. What bothers me more than the use of the word “so,” is the out of control use of hyperbole today. I see this especially on the Internet, on blogs and on Pinterest – I very often see phrases like “I am completely obsessed with this cheesy potato recipe,” as if the writer truly thinks of nothing but cheesy potatoes from the time she wakes up until the time she goes to bed. I highly doubt it.

  • Serge

    I’ve been pondering the transitive use, and all usage forms of “So” this past year. Being a highly reflective individual it dawned on me recently (mid year 2015) that I had started to use “So”, too often in my conversations. To a person like me, this bothered me, and my analytical brain started to ponder why this was the case. Having these random thoughts, we wonder, “Does anybody else think of these things too, do they even care, would anyone bother to find out “why”? And wham, somehow I am led to this website simply by asking another question, “why does my urine go florescent yellow with vitamin B’s?”. While having confessed to myself and been found guilty, and becoming hackneyed, I naturally turned to observe others and lo and behold, I found this to be totally out of control with some people. Specifically, people at work were using all the forms listed in the article and it drove me nuts. Somehow, indirectly or otherwise, I had fallen prey to the same “So” syndrome, and I vowed to “stop the non-sense!”, at least for me. Like any habit-forming behavior, it became a conscientious effort, then gradually, I took control back. Other habit forming words, such as “Like”, really tortured our society, and some of us are perilously helpless.

    However, I must confess that I was raised in the heart of “valley speak”, the San Fernando Valley, California, when, and where it all began. And, Frank Zappa glorified our culture and spread it graciously across the rest of the U.S., and the world. Having germinated “We the people, …”, with our lingo, I was blown away how it took hold.

    Thank you, Frank Zappa, for reminding all of us, never, EVER to eat that Yellow Snow!!

    Great article, Great Website – you’ve been bookmarked for future reference.

  • Joe

    The rule for the use of the word “so” is to decide if the sentence would have the same meaning if the word “so” was not used in the sentence. Hearing people start a sentence with “so” drives me nuts.