"So what if/that…"

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From the AP wire

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP)—So what that the Texas Rangers won their only game this season against Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

This sentence tripped me up in a couple of different ways. First, I initially had trouble parsing the subordinate clause, "the Texas Rangers won their only game this season against Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander." Now, obviously it doesn't mean that the only game this season that the Rangers won was against Verlander. For a little while, I thought it was a muddled way to say that the only game this season that the Rangers won against the Tigers was against Verlander. Eventually, I got it: the only game in which the Rangers faced Verlander this season was a game that the Rangers won. In other words, it's:

the Texas Rangers [won [their only game this season against Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander]]

not:

the Texas Rangers [won [their only game this season] [against Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander]]

Now that's settled. But what about the introductory "So what that…"? Shouldn't it be "So what if…"?

"So what if…" is a common colloquial opener for a subordinate clause (in American English at least), with the sense, "What does it matter if (such-and-such is the case)?" Note that the if doesn't have the same counterfactual force that you might get by leaving the so off: "What if…?" tends to imply an imaginative leap into a non-existent world. (See Geoff Pullum's "Real debate about unreal worlds" for more on counterfactual conditionals, and his "Questions and conditionals" about the use of if as a subordinator.) Because the subordinate clause can express a factual statement, we could, in theory, use the subordinator that in place of if. At least an alternation between if and that is perfectly acceptable in other syntactic frames:

It doesn't matter if the Rangers won that game against Verlander.
It doesn't matter that the Rangers won that game against Verlander.

Who cares if the Rangers won that game against Verlander?
Who cares that the Rangers won that game against Verlander?

So what if the Rangers won that game against Verlander?
?So what that the Rangers won that game against Verlander?

"It doesn't matter if/that…" and "Who cares if/that…" conform to the usual patterns of English syntax, but "So what if/that…" is a more idiomatic construction. I suppose I expect if to follow "So what…" because of the resemblance to the counterfactual "What if…?", but it's clear that others aren't bothered by the that alternation:

So What That You Didn’t Ask (Jo Ashline, 9/26/09)

So what that Barack Obama Saw Avatar, it still sucks!!! (Facebook group, 3/5/10)

Microsoft: So what that Apple is the 'biggest' tech company? We're still rich! (TechCrunch, 5/28/10)

So what that evangelical leaders are divided over tithing? (Generous Matters, 4/13/11)

So what that there was a Hurricane and Earthquake–Adherence is More Important (Law Librarian, 8/30/11)

So what that our thousands and thousands of low-income houses are all rebuilt since the storm. (Sandbar Politics, 10/7/11)

So what that he made her eyes bleed. At least he got the bitch to sob! (TV Fanatic, 10/7/11)

The idiomaticity of so what means that it doesn't have to be treated compositionally as a combination of so + what — freeing it up to be treated as a declarative subordinator like "It doesn't matter (that)…" rather than an interrogative one. There does seem to be some confusion when that is used instead of if, since some of the examples end with question marks while others end with periods (as in the AP's lede) or no punctuation at all. But then again, plain-old so what can end with a period or exclamation point in informal writing, so punctuation might not be a reliable guide here.

Dictionaries aren't much help in making sense of all this. Even the far more common collocation "So what if…" hasn't attracted lexicographical treatment. The OED entry for so (not yet revised for the third edition) covers so what only as a standalone retort and the related attributive use:

10 c. so what?: a retort made to an assertion, implying that the problem expressed has no immediate interest or obvious solution. Also as attrib. phr. orig. U.S.

1934    M. H. Weseen Dict. Amer. Slang 399 So what?—What of it? What does it matter?‥ What does that have to do with the matter? Your remark has no bearing or significance.
1935    F. Baldwin Innocent Bystander v. 83 ‘He has a wife,’ said the girl gloomily. ‘So what?’ asked Angela carelessly.
1938    C. Landery (title) So what? a young man's odyssey.
1949    Hansard Commons 21 Nov. 104 That is unfortunate and disappointing but, to use an American expression, ‘So what?’
1953    in Shorter Oxf. Eng. Dict. (1955) . Add., The tragedy of the ‘So what?’ generation.
1960    M. A. Sindall Matey xiii. 177 She suddenly yawned and flung the magazine on to the seat. ‘So what!’ she murmured.
1968    C. Watson Charity ends at Home x. 126 No, the fact is that Henny and I got along as well as most. Not around each other's necks all the time, but so what?
1970    T. Hilton Pre-Raphaelites viii. 201 Burne-Jones pushed art so far away from this world that our reactions to some of his paintings are of a merely so-what kind.

Despite its absence from the entry, "So what if…" followed by a subordinate clause has been in use in American English for more than a century. For instance, there's this line in a May 30, 1909 Washington Post item about the aging "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his not-so-sharp sharp-shooting: "So what if he doesn't break the glass ball every time?" "So what if…" might deserve attention when the OED revises the entry for so, but I would think "So what that…" is still too marginal to make the cut.

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15 Comments »

  1. Eric P Smith said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    To my ears, the core meaning of “So what?” is “What follows?” with the implied answer “Nothing of importance.” It is a rhetorical question. “So” means “therefore”. I am comfortable with “So what?” both as a stand-alone retort and in the “So what, if…” construction. “So what, if he doesn’t break the glass ball every time?” means to me “If he doesn’t break the glass ball every time, then what follows?” with the implied answer “Nothing of importance”.

    But, equally, “So what, that he doesn’t break the glass ball every time?” sounds to me like, “That he doesn’t break the glass ball every time, then what follows?” and so my ears tell me that it is ungrammatical. (In case that should be misunderstood, I should add that I am comfortable with the principles of descriptive grammar, and I am happy to regard what my ears tell me as but one data point in a population of millions.)

    I am a little surprised that the House of Commons found “So what?” to be an Americanism in 1949. I am British, and I was born in 1949, and I was taught from a young age to avoid Americanisms, and yet “So what?” is native to me.

  2. Ken Brown said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    I'm another Brit who finds "So what that…" quite normal.

  3. Linda Marshall said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

    As a western Canadian, I also find "so what that" sound fine to my ears. I actually have more of a problem with "so what if", at least when written. It reads to me as "So, what if…?" rather than "So what, if…" and I need to read the sentence again to get the sense of it.

  4. John Lawler said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

    >So what that [S]

    This sentence no verb.

    And verbs govern everything, including what complementizers, prepositions, and other little words may appear nestled up to that [S].
    Up to, but not including, true idiomatic fossilization. Which is probably in process among a large portion of the population, even as we speak (metaphorically speaking ()).

  5. mgh said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

    I think you're right that "so what" is being treated as a response ("So what if/that X" = "X? So what!"), similar to "Big deal that…" or "[no] big whoop that…", as in the following:

    "it’s no big whoop that she was unable to hang with Royal Delta in the ‘Bama" (link)

    "Big whoop that Hines Ward is this year's entrant on Dancing With The Stars" (link)

    "not such a big whoop that President Obama tapped a woman [...] for the spot" (link)

    "Big whoop that JT traded her in for a younger model" (link)

  6. ella said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    I would agree completely with @Linda Marshall. I am Canadian/UK hybrid. "So what that…." rings more as a defiant, challenging declaration. "So what if…." seems more speculative to me.

  7. DJ said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    My Texas ears pick up a bit of a difference that may be just my ears, but I hear a possibility in "So what if the Rangers won that game?" ("Let's think about what will happen if they win [what would have happened if they had won] that game.")

    In "so what that," it's a done deal; they won, and so what about it?

    Neither of which may make sense to anyone else on the planet.

    [(bgz) My intention with the example sentences was to make the subordinate clause a factual statement about an event in the past -- the Rangers really did win that game. That's different from the counterfactual conditional that you're suggesting, which could simply begin "What if..." without the so.]

  8. Michael Drake said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

    Make that at least one other person on the planet to whom DJ's remarks make sense.

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 1:55 am

    Now, obviously it doesn't mean that the only game this season that the Rangers won was against Verlander.

    That's only obvious if you have extra-linguistic knowledge. If you don't know anything about the Rangers (and I don't even know what sport is in scope here), that's a perfectly plausible interpretation.

    I am a little surprised that the House of Commons found “So what?” to be an Americanism in 1949.

    It's not the House: it's one MP. The online archive only goes back to '88, so it might be hard to find out which without paying a visit to Westminster. But misattribution of words as belonging to the other side of the Atlantic is a topic which has been covered before a few times on LL.

  10. Rubrick said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:56 am

    I think I analyze "so what" as being nearly perfectly synonymous with "who cares", in which case that follows as naturally as if.

    I say "nearly" because, in point of fact, "so what that" sounds reasonable to my ear, but still less natural than "so what if".

  11. Faldone said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 6:58 am

    My first misreading was that the Rangers had won only one game against the Tigers in the regular season and that against the Tigers ace, but I see, going back, that that reading is the hardest to squeeze out of the syntax.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    @DJ: To my ears, "So what if the Rangers won the only game that Verlander pitched against them" can mean what you said, but it can also mean "If the Rangers won the only game that Verlander pitched against them, so what?" In speech I think one could tell the difference.

  13. The Ridger said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    Sounds perfectly natural to me, a Tennessean. "So what that they won against the ace, that doesn't mean they'll win tonight."

  14. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

    "So what [that [S] ]" sounds good to me too. I agree with those saying that first-position "so what" means something close to "Who cares" or "Big deal". For me "So what?" has lost its etymological meaning of "So what (follows from that, and why is it in any way important)?" There is also "And?", uttered with a particular snarky intonation, which seems to get some of what must have been the original flavor of "So what?" as a simple response, before it could introduce clauses.
    The if/that alternation has the same function for all these new connectives: 'if' admits the possibility of the following predicate, 'that' admits the actuality of it. These expressions are concessive without giving a damn, so to speak.

    It's interesting that not only "Who cares" but also "big deal" introduce 'that' clauses for some people — but in the latter case I want there to be a questioned or negated predicate like "Is it a big deal that [S]" or "It's no big deal that [S]", or even the more complex "What's the big deal that [S]?", e.g. the following from the web that is an apparent headline ellipsis:

    "Jacqui Smith: no big deal that I used prisoners to paint my home"

    "Big deal that he was a terrible boss, he was a genius" (my constructed example) sounds like it's pushing it. But then syntactic changes are exactly cases of pushing the syntactic envelope with new lexical items that historically didn't quite fit.

  15. J. Goard said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    I also find that to be fine in the original example, and generally acceptable. Pretty bad in cases like these, though:

    A: You drank all the beer. B: So what (if/??that) I did?
    A: We're neighbors now. B: So what (if/??that) we are?
    A: Billy really wants to play Grand Theft Auto. B: So what (if/??that) he wants to? He's nine.

    I don't know whether that's just because these expressions are individually entrenched (idiomatic) with if, or whether phrasal phonology is playing a role. I suspect the former, because although complementizer that is phonetically reduced quite readily in other constructional contexts (e.g. after think, hope, said), it doesn't seem to do so after (this use of) so what.

    Or maybe it may turn out that that is necessarily putting in focus the information that follows, with the consequence that when the sentence is repeating or standing in for old information (my above examples) it has to be if

    Eh, too much thinking before I've properly gotten my coffee in me…

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