So… that’s how they start sentences these days

I have recently noticed more and more people starting sentences with the word “So”. I have also noticed that most of those who like to launch their sentences with So are younger than me.

I have no principled objection to the use of So to start a sentence. In fact, there are many instances in which I endorse So as a starter.

If someone has just returned from a daunting experience I might well ask…

So... how did it go?

Credit: slideshare.net

Starting with So helps start a conversation in a gentle and collegial tone. Instead of immediately demanding, “How was it?”

Another example of So being used to advantage is in warming up listeners as you begin to tell a story. As in: “So I’m walking along, minding my own business, when…”

Starting with So to answer a question

It is when So is used gratuitously to start sentences that I find it a problem. Especially in beginning a reply to a question. For example, when I asked about a young person’s plans for the future, the response I got was: “So I’m thinking of doing…” Starting with So somehow made the statement seem conspiratorial.

Some people regard the use of So to start a sentence as condescending. They get offended when this two-letter word is used as if presenting a logical inference. As if the speaker is succinctly concluding an argument:

“So, since your view is a non-starter, let me tell you mine.”

Starting a sentence with So can even be seen as an insult. Like you are patronisingly taking a discussion down to a simple level.

My head will explode if I hear start a sentence with So

To me, littering one’s speech with So’s is just another way of saying “um” or “uh”. Or that other word beloved of youthful speakers, “like”. Using So in this way seems like a crutch. Psychologists call it a “discourse marker”.

Starting with So can buy you a second or two of time as you plan your retort. Or, to ignore the question and instead sneakily raise another point entirely, which seems to be the secret agenda of So-Starters.

You could, of course, rather use a pause instead of saying So… You might simply stop speaking for a moment as you consider your verbal way forward. Every bit of dead air does not have to be filled with words.

Geezer Alert:

Please note that I am not invoking the Grammar Police with these musings. I do not wish to come across as yet another old person who is scandalised by the inevitable changes over time in colloquial speech.

“I almost fainted when I read about the acceptability of beginning sentences with a conjunction!”

– the Victorian tone of a comment on punctuating-so-at-the-beginning-of-a-sentence

Worse yet is the whining of an unabashed pedant.

“Now the misplaced So has invaded everyday speech like some noxious weed in an untended garden.”

Radio 4 (UK) presenter John Humphrys

There is apparently a mnemonic device for remembering all the coordinating conjunctions that some grammarians claim are prohibited as sentence starters. It is FANBOYS, from the initials of the following unacceptable words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet – and last but not least, so.

FANBOYS conjunctions

Evidence that FANBOYS words are absolutely acceptable in starting sentences is seen in English writing dating as far back as the 14th cenutry. As with “dotard”, an epithet for old people previously explored and deplored by My New Old Self, this is another approach to writing once embraced by Chaucer and Shakespeare, now revived after centuries of disuse.

Starting with So is OK

In defence of starting sentences with conjunctions like So, I prefer to cite my favourite style guide, one from the mid 20th century. The Elements of Style is a  classic in use of the English language by university professor William Strunk Jr and E.B. White, author of, among many other works, Charlotte’s Web.

Elements of Style Strunk & White

Credit: 1year100books

The 1959 edition of Strunk & White, as it is fondly known to many writers, includes two sentences in a row that open with two of the supposedly verboten words:

“But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.

– Strunk & White

Old vs. Young again?

This phenomenon of excessively starting sentences with So has only come to my attention recently, as I have mentioned. Whereas linguists have been studying the Rise of So for many years. University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan says she loves to follow “the seeds of language change” among young people. She also notes such changes tend to bring criticism and concern. From who? You guessed it: older people.

So here is another use of So that bugs me. Also favoured by the youth, it is in deploying So as an adverb – before the word “not”. As in “I am so not in the mood to carry on carping about this.”

Just say LITO!

My New Old Self can only but conclude with a tip of the hat to my new-old saying…

“Lucky I’m Too Old” (to start starting my sentences with So).

Or, to put in in Internet Lingo:

“LITO!”

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