So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.
– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
I like John Humphrys, the author, journalist, and BBC radio and television presenter. I like the way he drills down on key questions and answers in discussion with evasive and disingenuous politicians. I’ve read a couple of his books – In God We Doubt, a bit on the fence but entertaining nevertheless; and Lost For Words, a book that firmly established Humphrys as a grammatical pedant. But, he’s become entrenched in his viewpoints and unable to adjust to change, which is a pity.
In his latest attack on language evolution, he deplores the use of the word so at the start of a sentence. He brands the practice as ‘irritating’, ‘absurd’ and a ‘noxious weed’. Why?
So is both an adverb – I believe so – and a conjunction – It’s raining so let’s stay at home. Any conjunction can be used to start a sentence – and, but, or, yet, for, so, … and Humphrys admits as such in his Lost for Words book. So is not a stuffer word, like umm or err. It’s not a no-meaning intensifier like the over-use of like, really and actually. It’s not necessarily a marker, a cue to begin a practiced reply. It’s not a sign of illiteracy – how could it be? The word has meaning: for this reason, therefore, in the same way, correspondingly, and can even be used to introduce a quizzical tone to what follows: So, we meet again Mr Bond.
As I have remarked elsewhere, there are no rules for correct or incorrect constructions of the English language. There are many opinions and judgements, some encapsulated in so-called grammar books, and there is the impact of usage but there is no definitive body to rule on what constitutes a rule of grammar and thus what breaks the rule. The English language is in a constant state of evolution with many different influences: speech patterns, effect of loanwords, development for text messages and e-mail, dialects, colloquialisms, and such like.
Humphrys is entitled to his opinion and others are already jumping on the “Down with so as a starter” bandwagon but the use of so as a sentence starter introduces no ambiguity, has a clear meaning and in no way is to be deplored. So be it.
So, the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no they do not.
– Milton Friedman
The word ‘so’ used at the start of a sentence.
As an example; when an academic is asked about his work he replies “So, the work involves…”
The word ‘so’ as used here is quite pointless; it adds nothing to the explanation and simply adds some useless padding to the start of the sentence. Far better to say “The work involves…”. This is simpler and as so often happens when simplifying things, the meaning is clearer.
When ‘so’ starts a sentence the implication is that something has already been said that relates to what follows in a supporting fashion. When no such thing has preceded the offending sentence the listener may think he or she has missed something important.
The problem with ‘so’ is that it’s such a useful word. It can do ‘so’ much more than acting as a conjunction or an amplification to something that has previously been said. This flexibility of use leads to what I consider bad practice eg the above, or things like ‘thats so not fair’.
The strange thing about pointless padding is that sometimes it seem fine (to me) and sometimes it’s quite irritating. Examples of the later include “for my sins” (I’m always tempted to ask for details of the sins) or ‘way, shape or form’. Grrrr!
I’m in full agreement with John Humphrys.
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