So

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When I was skimming the transcript of the 12/19 Democratic presidential debate for "Warren vocal stereotypes", I noticed that several of the candidates started some of their answers to questions with "so". Among the dozen examples:

WOODRUFF: Senator Warren, why do you think — why do you think more Americans don't agree that this is the right thing to do? And what more can you say?
WARREN: So I see this as a constitutional moment.

WOODRUFF: Brief answers — brief responses from Mr. Steyer and Mr. Buttigieg.
STEYER: So let me say that I agree with Senator Warren in much of what she says.

WOODRUFF: Welcome back to the PBS NewsHour Democratic debate with Politico. And now it's time for closing statements. Each have 60 seconds, beginning with Mr. Steyer. […] Mayor Buttigieg?
BUTTIGIEG: So the nominee is going to have to do two things: defeat Donald Trump and unite the country as president.

Of course I know that "so" can be used as an introductory particle — the MW entry give the example "so here we are", and the OED (from 1913) cites

1741 S. Richardson Pamela III. xxxii. 251 And I say..So, my good Friends!—I am glad to see you.

So why was I initially a bit surprised by those answer-initial examples? I guess it was because I thought of phrase-initial so as implying a substantive connection to the previous context.  The answer to a question obviously does involve a connection to the prior discourse, but it's not the kind of connection that would allow "thus" or "in that way" to be substituted for so in such examples.

And it's easy to find examples of phrase-initial so where the connection to the discourse context is even looser — for example,  Terry Gross often starts interview questions with so, and not necessarily follow-up questions. So from the end of her 2016 interview with Stephen Colbert:

GROSS: So one more question —

This is apparently is an example of semantic bleaching, similar to the process that turned very and really (and more recently literally) into intensifiers. The OED lists so as an "adv. and conj." glossed as "In the way or manner described, indicated, or suggested; in that style or fashion", with examples going back to the 9th century. Over the centuries, if the bleaching theory is correct, a sense emerged that's something more like "in relation to the issue described, suggested, or presupposed".

This is not a recent change, but apparently I never fully internalized it. Or maybe I just found the high frequency of answer-initial so in that debate to be stylistically unexpected.

Update — In the comments, David Denison links to his 10/4/2019 talk "A just so story: Explanatory so as turn-introducer", and promises a paper to appear shortly. His conclusion: "I reckon it appeared in the 2010s in the UK, but earlier in the US and Canada".

One way to track the emergence might be to look at long-running interview programs, such as Fresh Air. In the 2016 Stephen Colbert interview that I quoted from, 10 of Terry Gross's 92 turns start with so, and similarly in her recent interviews; but in her 1986 interview with Leonard Cohen, there are no so-initial turns. The trajectory in between might tell us something.

Update #2 — In the comments, Bloix points us to an earlier Bloix comment (on "Like thanks", 11/26/2015), which in turn points to a 9/3/2015 "Fresh Air" (!) piece by Geoff Nunberg "So, What's The Big Deal With Starting A Sentence With 'So'?". I added to that comment a graph of So/Well ratio as a function of birth year, for 10 Fresh Air guests:

I had completely forgotten about that exchange — so like thanks!



27 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 10:17 am

    Sadly, in the UK at least, response-initial "So" is now seemingly de rigeur for those being interviewed on the radio,

  2. Robert Coren said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 10:45 am

    My husband will often start a conversation by saying "So…" and then pausing, which generally means he's about to say something consequential (more or less; it might be something like figuring out plans for the evening).

  3. BillR said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    It brings to mind the "Haec" from Beowulf.

  4. Gali said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 10:54 am

    I got the impression that it's a largely conscious substitution for the ubiquitous "well" as a filler/hedge/discourse marker. One can certainly imagine some wonk coaching politicians to use the more "confident" "so," over the "weak/uncertain" "well,".

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 11:11 am

    On numerous occasions I have found myself using phrase-initial "so" to begin a conversation, particularly when texting. E.g. "So I'm going to be in town next week; are you free for dinner?"

    I suppose there's a weak sense in which nearly every text message is a continuation of a previous conversation, even if days or weeks have elapsed since the last exchange. But I'm not sure that accounts for my tendency to use "so" to reopen the conversation.

  6. David Denison said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 11:17 am

    I completed a paper on precisely this usage (which I labelled 'explanatory so') earlier this year. I think it dates to the 2010s in the UK, maybe a decade or so earlier in the US. I'll get the written version corrected in a week or so and put it on my download page. Meanwhile the gist is in a presentation from a talk given in Paris.

  7. Laura Morland said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 11:45 am

    @Bill R –Or even the word Beowulf-poet uses to begin "speaking": "Hwæt"

    "So, we've heard of the glory of the Gar-Danes…."

    In just checked, and Seamus Heaney chose "So" to begin his translation of the epic poem.

    P.S. I just discovered by accident that French Wiktionary translates "Hwæt" by « Eh quoi ! » which could well be a translation for "So," in the appropriate context.
    https://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/hw%C3%A6t

  8. Jonathan said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    I think it's acting as a softener, a nod towards an apology for what is about to come, whether you're redirecting the conversation or asking for a favor. It acknowledges that you need your partner's assent to continue the conversation, and that you're not merely assuming it. I'd bet dogs can indicate something similar with their tails and body posture.

  9. Barrie said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

    Non-phrasal 'hwæt' has been disputed https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/listen-beowulf-opening-line-misinterpreted-for-200-years-8921027.html

  10. Ray said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    I've noticed the introductory "so" on teevee as well, especially on news programs when interviewing an expert. and it always sounds a bit patronizing or toffee-nosed, as if the expert has to first pause, draw a deep breath, and "back up" a bit from the question (and its pointedness, or its premises) in order to explain something s/he assumes that the dumbed-down viewer/listener doesn't know, like background info or context or how "medicare for all" isn't really what it sounds like.

    so, yeah, in a televised political debate, you're going to hear it a lot!

  11. Paul said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 12:13 pm

    It reminds me a lot of the Tony-Blair-initial "Look…"… a way of trying to signal that what follows is a considered and reasonable response.

  12. David Denison said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

    In case of interest, I did some corpus work over the summer while working on the origins of the usage (which I labelled 'explanatory so'). I reckon it appeared in the 2010s in the UK, but earlier in the US and Canada. The paper is awaiting final corrections first thing after the break, but meanwhile the gist appears in a recent talk given in Paris (http://www.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/llc/files/david-denison/Paris_so.pdf).

  13. yoandri dominguez said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

    i think here *beating around the bush* is the righter termino logy.

  14. Reading: So – Morgan's Log said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 2:25 pm

    […] Source […]

  15. AntC said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 3:46 pm

    I've noticed Senator Warren beginning a response with "So …" on may occasions. I'd call it something of a trademark for her.

    In her case, it typically means: I'm going to disagree with you and give you a lecture/harangue on why you're wrong; but to avoid the tone of scolding that cost Hillary so dear, I'm going to appear to be developing your point.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

    "So, we've heard of the glory of the Gar-Danes…."

    I'm with the Independent article on this, and I'm surprised to learn that the usual misinterpretation came from a Grimm brother with his German linguistic background. It seems pretty clear to me that the opening sentence is basically "What have(n't) we heard about the Spear-Danes and a lot of other glorious things!" – a rhetorical question as a subordinate clause, which is prone to having the verb at the end, after the long list of glorious things (as has become obligatory in German: Was wir nicht alles über die […] gehört haben!).

    In her case, it typically means: I'm going to disagree with you and give you a lecture/harangue on why you're wrong; but to avoid the tone of scolding that cost Hillary so dear, I'm going to appear to be developing your point.

    Developing points being, of course, what she did for years when she taught at universities. I'm sure it comes naturally to her.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 5:04 pm

    So I dunno about Terry Gross and Leonard Cohen, but what David Denison's presentation calls the "marker of spontaneous new topics" version of turn-initial "so" is sufficiently engrained in my own AmEng ideolect that I would be rather taken aback by peevery directed to it if the peevery went beyond the "that's an informal/colloquial usage that shouldn't be deployed in formal writing" sort. And indeed I suspect that my usage of it in writing is generally confined to social-media posts and similar genres where an informal and conversational register is being deployed. But since "marking spontaneous new topics" is pretty much the opposite of the "implying a substantive connection to the previous context" usage that myl was assuming as a default for phrase-initial usage of "so," it would seem like our two ideolects may be at variance here.

    [(myl) So what once was a marker of discourse continuity turned into a marker of discourse discontinuity. Derrida would be pleased — vive la différance!]

  18. Brett said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

    One of Garrison Keillor's signature gags was conversations between older Minnesotans in which every sentence began with, "So,…."

  19. Bloix said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 11:59 pm

    Introductory so was discussed in the comments to a post on this blog about four years ago, one of which mentions an NPR commentary by Geoff Nunberg on the subject.
    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=22504

  20. bks said,

    December 27, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    Softer and more succinct than "Hear me now …"

  21. Rose Eneri said,

    December 27, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    It seems to me the introductory "so" is sometimes a shorter, more polite expression of "sooo anyway" or "sooo anyho" which signals that what the original speaker has just said is ridiculous or strangely inappropriate and the current speaker is going to ignore it and either continue with the topic at hand, or move on to a better topic.

  22. maidhc said,

    December 27, 2019 @ 6:23 pm

    Seamus Heaney said that he choose "So!" because of its use by older speakers of Ulster English.

  23. Stefan Krasowski said,

    December 29, 2019 @ 1:31 pm

    Adam Gopnik refers to this as the 'Ivy League so', here's a BBC 'A Point of View' episode with his thoughts on it. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bgt9vq

    This 'so' is rife in tech circles. Listen to interviews, such as on Recode Decode, of tech startup founders and the stilted way they speak.

  24. BZ said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 10:45 am

    I know I've started conversations (and posts) with "so". I'm not sure what, if anything, it adds to the meaning. My first instinct on stating an answer to a question with "so" is that the answer will be negative (as in "no" to a yes or no question, not as in rude or angry), or in disagreement with something in the question.

  25. Barry Cusack said,

    December 31, 2019 @ 1:36 pm

    @Paul
    Yes, I can remember Tony Blair opening sentences with "Look, … " very frequently. To me, it functioned as an announcement that he was going to approach a topic in a different way from the way the interviewer was approaching it.
    In a completely different context:
    Pc: Mr Jones, did you go at Ms Smith with a hammer?
    Jones: Look, she was the one who started it – I was just defending myself.
    Here, the policeman's interest is in establishing one fact. The suspect's is to give a justification of his actions.
    We might say that this is: Exponent:"Look, … " with Discourse function: to reframe a discussion. And a politician, clearly, often finds it useful to re-frame a topic.
    It could be that, sometimes, "so" has a similar function, though "so" could not replace "Look, … " in the above dialogue., though it might in Tony Blair's usages.

  26. Yerushalmi said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 6:27 am

    On the subject of why answer-initial "Look", "Now", and "Well" have turned into "So", there's a wonderful sketch from John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme:

    https://youtu.be/taejEoFBbDE?t=3h58m23s

    (Don't listen to the sketch that comes immediately after it unless you're very familiar with the series – you won't get any of the jokes at all.)

  27. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 12:25 pm

    Yerushalmi,

    I think that skit just about says it all, doesn't it?

    What's the "mot juste", then, for sentence-initial time-stalling? I mean, if you're on a TV panel, you can't very well just sit there staring blankly at your questioner while you formulate your answer, can you?

    "Well" sounds defensive ("Well, at least I didn't kill the guy"), "Look" has an argumentative tint to it ("Look, you moron…", and "So" comes off as pedantic, or patronizing.

    Why not good, old-fashioned "Hmm"? Very brief, not an extended "hmmmmmmmmmmmmm", but just long enough to signal that the listener has heard the question, and is now beginning the semiotic process of organizing thoughts into coherent, logical, audience-appropriate narrative speech.

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