Thursday, April 26, 2012

So... (explained by Lexicon Valley)

The Lexicon Valley podcast returned this week with an exploration of starting sentences with "So"—not the adverb to enhance meaning ("The meat was so well done that it tasted like leather.") or to indicate "therefore" ("We have no apples so if you want fruit you'll need to eat an orange.") or to mean "to facilitate" ("There need to be an equal number of players on each team so the game will be fair."), but as an indication of a continuation of a interrupted thought ("So where was I? Oh, right…"). However, there's a more and more common tendency to start non-interrupted thoughts with "so" in conversations.

In that case the purpose of "so" (it was suggested) was to direct the conversation in a different direction than it previously had, one that's more germane to a tacit or overt agenda ("So regarding that item you mentioned last week…"), where there's a sort of implicit continuation of something that wasn't necessarily said; it was a segue of sorts.

They also talked about its purpose as a way of interrupting politely. Citing a study an analyst had done, they differentiated "So" from "Oh" as the term starting a sentence when breaking into someone else talking; the study found that the vast majority of the time when "So" was used the topic that followed was the other person (suggesting a thought about that person that is worth that person hearing) but almost always when the interruption opened with "Oh" the topic was something about the speaker (the one interrupting)—the suggestion being it's better to make interruptions about oneself seem like they're just occurring to one (by saying "Oh" to imply a thought emerging at that moment) and it's better to make interruptions about the other person seem like the continuation of a previously developed thought by prefacing them with "So." This all occurs on an unconscious level while conversing, of course.

They also touched on ending a sentence with "so…" (with that trailing off of the voice to indicate an implied ellipsis, with the further implication of wanting the listener to draw the tacit conclusion of the thought without the speaker having to explicitly state it ("Our anniversary is coming up next week, so…"). That's the "therefore" usage but without finishing the sentence.

They finished up with a quote from Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and other books) in his the book The New New Thing, to answer the implicit question of whether the emergence of the preamble "so" was more prevalent recently. The quote noted the observation that computer programmers often began questions with "so" ("So why have you come here?") because for many English was a second or third language and the tick of "so" was easily used to cut to the point.

So perhaps we have the rise of geeks to blame for the this.

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