So What?

by Rehann Rheel

So are you ready for the new season of ‘Game of Thrones?’”

So where do I fit in?”

So I was searching for an Airbnb…”

That sneaky so seems to constantly creep into my sentences lately. So much so that all those so’s are making me feel so-so about my writing, to be perfectly honest. Is so the new um? Is it nothing but an unnecessary crutch and filler?

There are definitely people who’d agree with that. In fact, NPR listeners considered it the second-most misused word of 2014. But it turns out that this so I apparently love starting my sentences with is not a misuse at all. It’s a linguistic phenomenon called Sentence-Initial So. But before we get into whatever the heck that means, let’s review a few of the more typical uses of so. The ones that won’t make NPR listeners take up arms.

So is a useful little word. To see its uses in detail, you can go to the Merriam-Webster page. But here’s the usage rundown:

  • Adverb: “I ate that sushi so quickly.”
  • Conjunction: “I know three languages already, so I don’t think learning anotherwill be difficult.”
  • Pronoun: “If you need to make a call, do so before we lose service.”
  • Adjective: “She arranged her pictures just so.”

Sentence-Initial So, though, is different. It’s used like the speaker or author is continuing a story or explaining something, even if neither of these things is actually happening. That begs the question, then: what exactly is happening here? Well, there are a few different theories (in no particular order, for the record):

  1. So to indicate that what’s being said has been pending. That’s why this brand of so is heard so often (like, really really often) in interviews.
  2. So to point out that the following words are relevant to the listener
  3. So to switch to a brand new topic, while acknowledging the topic that came before
  4. So to avoid awkward silences (aka the bane of my existence)

To put it super simply, Sentence-Initial So is a polite transition word.

So, how new is Sentence-Initial So anyways? Turns out, it’s not very new at all. In fact, it’s kind of old. Granted, Sentence-Initial So usage has increased over the past decade or two, but instances of this particular so can be found in recordings from the 20s and 30s, and even in Chaucer’s work way back in the 14th Century.

Also, the Sentence-Initial concept has been a part of English even before so was the reigning queen. Sentence-Initial Well held the throne most recently, Sentence-Initial Now ruled before well did, and if you go back to Old English (Beowulf for the win!) good ol’ Sentence-Initial What was where it was at.

I wonder which word will usurp so?

I’m eternally fascinated by how language evolves, and how my own language changes without me even realizing it. Have any of you noticed Sentence-Initial So? Or another seemingly odd quirk of English? Let me know in the comments.

If you want to hear more about Sentence-Initial So, check out the resources below.

Podcast Resources:

A Way with Words | College Slang Party

A Way with Words | Coast is Clear

A Way with Words | Pig Latin

Lexicon Valley | So…Let’s Talk about So

Lexicon Valley | A Needle Pulling Thread

Written Resources:

University of Pennsylvania | Language Log | Everything after Z

Do Adverbs Belong in Professional Writing?

by Samantha Herrington

Adverbs are one of the most divisive writing tools in language. Some authors wish to see adverbs in a discarded heap along with sentence fragments and comma splicing. In his acclaimed work On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King wrote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Other authors believe that adverbs enhance how a message is understood: in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter, adverbs are prolific. Others still are accepting of adverbs in prose but not in the professional world. No matter the opinion one has on adverbs, they weaken professional writing when used in abundance. Here are some examples of when you should skip the adverbs:

  1. When They Waste Space

It’s difficult to catch a reader’s attention, let alone keep it. With unlimited options available, readers don’t want to engage in content that makes them feel as if reading becomes work. Adverbs are work. They get tedious. Even the most devoted reader would get exhausted after trudging through sentences upon sentences of, “We kindly ask that you accept the change” or, “This is arguably the best restaurant in town.” Ask for acceptance. Call the restaurant the best. Don’t waste the reader’s time with unnecessary modifiers.

  1. When They Tell, Not Show

The English language is not lacking in expressive and vivid words. There is a way to say anything and everything without your message sounding weak. In order for writing to be clear, you must show your audience what you mean. Take this example: “Fred laughed loudly”. Here, the reader is explicitly told how Fred laughed. It’s lazy writing. Yes, it gives the reader all of the relevant information, but it doesn’t show the reader anything. Try:

  • Fred’s laugh carried through the room.
  • The sound of Fred’s laugh could be heard down the street.

See the difference?

  1. When They Promote Mistrust

When we use adverbs, we basically tell the reader, “Hey, I think you need help in understanding what I’m saying, because I don’t trust that you got it from the context of the writing itself.” Not only is the writer not trusting the reader, the writer is not trusting themselves and their writing ability. Adverbs like “very or “really” are signs of mistrust:

  • The new product model is very efficient.

The writer should trust in their choice of the word “efficient” without having to use “very” as a modifier, and they should trust that the reader understands this as well. Writers, believe in your abilities.

So, When Can We Use Adverbs?

When what you are saying cannot be said without the use of an adverb, then use it. Adverbs do serve a purpose when used in moderation. Not all adverbs are bad; in many instances, they help to clarify writing or add stress to a particular thought. However, there are different ways to use adverbs and a professional writer should know when to use them and when not to use them.

Here is a helpful guide that shows the power of a well-placed adverb versus a lazy adverb.