Tuesday, June 8, 2010

So, do you start sentences with so? If so...

The word "so" brings out strong feelings, it turns out.  A public radio host who interviews scientists, when asked what they should do differently, sees it as a repetitive distraction. He says, "Stop starting every discussion with the word ‘so.’ You ask a scientist, 'Why is the sky blue?' and they say 'So...'."  On The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, Carolyn Bledsoe chalks it up to a mental pause, a replacement for "um." She said, "the more sophisticated speaker have stopped saying ums, ers, and ahs. Instead they have started using 'and,' 'so,' 'then.' When evaluating these speakers, I remind them of sentences that became paragraphs because of these words. Instead of a period, they now need pauses."  Maria Elena Poulos came to the defense of "so," saying, "SO used correctly in a sentence or presentation can be most powerful...it can connect the speaker with a direct point."   And many of us wince when we hear the sing-song so that sounds like a Valley Girl attempt to advance the narrative: "So then I said he should leave. So he did..."

Who's right here?  Is "so" really the new "um" -- and is that wrong?  Turns out, they all may be right.  "So" has many uses, according to this analysis in the New York Times.  And, as with any term of art, you need to think through your intent in using "so" to make sure it's working for you and not against you:
  • As a logical connective word, which is how software engineers in Silicon Valley began using it (and, many believe, how it came to dominate the start of a sentence).  It suggests authority, and indicates an explanation is coming, which is why scientists may be using it.
  • As an empathetic connection, indicating that you've chosen what you're about to say because it's relevant to your listener, as in, "So it might be helpful to know that...."
  • As a pause to think.  If so, it's acting like an "um"--which, by the way, is a normal part of speech.  But repeating one time-buying phrase like "so" over and over causes your audience to start counting (and it's too short to buy much time to think).
To understand more about "so," check out my recent "all in one on ums" post, which offers more on how to replace it with time-buying phrases and why we "um" in the first place.

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