As a linguist, I get very excited when language matters are discussed in popular media outlets. Two recent articles caught my attention because they’re dealing with language use in every day life, something that is my professional and academic bread and butter.
A little while ago (on 29 April 2014), a piece appeared on fastcompany.com about the use of the word so in the casual, spontaneous talk of business-type people. The author, Hunter Thurman, argues that using so to start a sentence can have a negative effect, giving three reasons why so-users need to stop it:
- So insults the speaker’s audience;
- So undermines the speaker’s credibility; and
- So shows that the speaker isn’t 100% comfortable with what s/he is saying.
And then, a little while later (on 13 May 2014), a response on slate.com (originally published on businessinsider.com) appeared, as a sort of response or rebuttal. This piece, written by Christina Sterbenz, argues that the appearance of so to begin a sentence can have several positive functions.
Sterbenz’s article quotes Galina Bolden, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, who says that so at the start of a question can mark the beginning of a new topic that one speaker wants to discuss, and may have been thinking about for a while. Use of so can also show that the speaker is interested in the person s/he is talking with. For the full article, click here.
There is another, more humble but perhaps more important function of so and other small words such as right, okay, and well (what linguists call ‘discourse markers’): simply to get our attention. Sometimes listeners mentally ‘switch off’ in conversation, or a conversation comes to a (temporary) halt – you can’t talk when you’re drinking, maybe you and your conversation partner are in a place not conducive to talk. Using so at the start of a statement acts as a signal that you’re about to say something, and the other person should start to pay attention. These filler words are not necessarily vital to the message a speaker may wish to communicate but they serve to catch the listener’s attention without the speaker having to do anything more explicit. Dr Deborah Schiffrin, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, has written extensively on the function of discourse markers.
Note that spoken talk is different from written language – we have to put more conscious effort into reading a piece of text, so we don’t usually need the same linguistic attention-getters that we do in spoken talk which (if you aren’t profoundly deaf) is everywhere around us, all the time. We learn to tune out a lot of sound, and may not be paying attention when someone starts to speak to us. Hence, we have learned subtle ways to catch each other’s attention without having to jump up and down and shout HEY, PAY ATTENTION TO ME! I’M ABOUT TO SAY SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO HEAR!
Speaking of shouting: Nowadays in text used in virtual environments (such as internet messaging, Twitter, Facebook, and other ‘computer talk’), the presence of all capital letters indicates shouting. This virtual shouting is a handy, though slightly jarring, way of getting a reader’s attention.
Questions? Want to talk further about this? Just send me an email: email@example.com or tweet at me: @drjavafox