Letters to the editor on “so”

On May 30, I wrote the following under the title The Grammar Mavens Fall to My Wit and Charm:

There’s a great article in the NYT today on the growing use of the word “so”
as an introductory sentence starter like “well” and “ummm”. I have noticed
for a long time now a tendency in my writing to start sentences with so, so
I go back and replace some of them.

The article goes into the reasons for the growth of ’so’, relating it to the
fragmentation of our attention so that we want to assure our interlocutors
that what we are about to say concerns what we have been talking about. One
scholar traced its rise to Silicon Valley where lots of immigrants found it
an easy word to use in tracking the course of problem-solving discussions
inherent in the informatic industry. One scholar, Galina Bolden, has
written several papers on it. One function of “so” is to foreshadow a major
insight, which is how I usually use it, so pay attention.

My entry went on but there were responses to the article in the NYT the next week. I’d like to reproduce a few here to illustrate a point:

Having found myself routinely beginning paragraphs and even sentences with the word “so” and questioning that verbal tic in myself, I was intrigued by the article.
The article’s title was
Follow My Logic? A Connective Word Takes the Lead
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS and it appeared May 21, 2010 in the Week In Review section.

One response was linguistic, written in fact by a linguist. She said:

We should resist the temptation to assign absolute meaning to any language behavior. Starting a sentence with “so” might signal the speaker’s anxiety about being interrupted. But it might not.

But then, to my point, we heard from these two gentlemen:
“Look” is annoying, dismissive and demeaning. “So” is simply annoying.
“Look” is shorthand for “if you’d just listen to me, you’d understand.” It is an aggressive telegraph of summary judgment.
Followed by his fellow curmudgeon:
Beginning an answer with “so” implies that the answerer is drawing a conclusion from a body of knowledge to which she is privy and the listener is not. She is not just answering; she is explaining. The tone is professorial and slightly condescending.

Do these last two quotes tell you something about the personalities of these guys? Now imagine them in the classroom teaching, what will their attitudes be toward a range of things they will encounter with students, admins, parents, and colleagues?

Finally, a man who reads Beowulf a guarantor itself of high-mindedness replies, citing the Seamus Heaney translation of the epic:

– “So” implies that we’re in the middle of a continuing conversation; it’s the touch of a hand on my shoulder. I find myself using it in many an e-mail message, so while there are many reasons for its resurgence, I give credit to Mr. Heaney and his reminder of the power of poetry in everyday language. =

A kindly, gentler Anglo-Saxon England indeed. The word in OE the writer refers to is Hwaet! Heaney and the writer read/hear it as welcoming; others hear a challenge, a sneer. Is it in the intent or in the listener’s mind, this meaning of “so”. So, what do you think?

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