Sunday, May 23, 2010

So? So! So.....


So, this is about the word “so.”

If you speak English for work or pleasure, there is a fair chance that you’ve done it, too.

“So” may be the new “well,” new “um,” new “oh” and new “like.” No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, late last year: “So, it’s not only because we believe that universal values support human rights being recognized and respected, but we think that it’s in the best interest for economic growth and political stability. So we believe that.”

A dispatch on National Public Radio last month, in which a quarter of sentences began with “so”: “So it’s, I think, the fifth largest in the nation. So, but now that’s the population in general. So there are sort of two, there are two things that are circumstantial.”

A quotation in a report last month from Channel NewsAsia, based in Singapore: “So, what we’re doing is — elephants have had these migratory routes, basically like islands connecting parks between each other; they’ve got nowhere to move and people have encroached on them.

“So, we negotiate with the people to move from the land. So, what we do, we buy the land, build them houses off the corridors and give them exactly the same amount of arable land back.”

A recent news briefing by Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, in which 5 of 21 sentences began with “so”: “So, all those issues, we hope, will be addressed in the report of the secretary general.”

For most of its life, “so” has principally been a conjunction, an intensifier and an adverb.

What is new is its status as the favored introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of “well,” “oh,” “um” and their ilk.

So, it is widely believed that the recent ascendancy of “so” began in Silicon Valley. The journalist Michael Lewis picked it up when researching his 1999 book “The New New Thing”: “When a computer programmer answers a question,” he wrote, “he often begins with the word ‘so.”’ Microsoft employees have long argued that the “so” boom began with them.

In the software world, it was a tic that made sense. In immigrant-filled technology firms, it democratized talk by replacing a world of possible transitions with a catchall.

And “so” suggested a kind of thinking that appealed to problem-solving types: conversation as a logical, unidirectional process, proceeding much in the way of software code — if this, then that.

This logical tinge to “so” has followed it out of software. Starting a sentence with “so” uses the whiff of logic to relay authority. Where “well” vacillates, “so” declaims.

To answer a question starting with “well” suggests you are still considering it, don’t know fully but are getting there. To answer with “so” better suits the age, perhaps: A Google-glued generation can look it up where their parents would have said “I don’t know,” Facebook and Twitter encourage ordinary people and not just politicians to stay on message, and we gravitate toward declamatory blogs and away from down-the-middle reporting.

“So” also echoes the influence of a science- and data-driven culture. It would have been unimaginable a few decades ago that literature scholars would use neurological correlation analysis to evaluate texts, or that ordinary people would quantify daily activities like eating, sex and sleeping, or that software would calculate what songs we will like.

But in algorithmic times, “so” conveys an algorithmic certitude. It suggests that there is a right answer, which the evidence dictates and which should not be contradicted. Among its synonyms, indeed, are “consequently,” “thus” and “therefore.”

And yet Galina Bolden, a linguistics scholar who has written academic papers on the use of “so,” believes that “so” is also about a culture of empathy gaining steam in a globalized world.

To begin a sentence with “oh,” she said in an e-mail, is to focus on what you have just remembered and your own concerns. To begin with “so,” she said, drawing on her study of a database of recorded ordinary conversations, is to signal that one’s coming words are chosen for relevance to the listener.

The ascendancy of “so,” Dr. Bolden said, “suggests that we are concerned with displaying interest for others and downplaying our interest in our own affairs,” she said.

“So” seems also to reflect our fraught relationship with time. “Well” and “um” are open-ended; “so” is impatient. It leans forward, seeks a consequence, sums things up. It is a word befitting a culture in which things worth doing must bear fruit now, where it is more fulfilling to day-trade grain futures than to raise grain.

Today we live in fragments. You may be reading this column while toggling among your cellphone, iPad and laptop while eating lunch and proofreading a report. In such a world, “so” may serve to defragment, with its promise that what is coming next follows what just came, said Michael Erard, the author of “Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.”

The rise of “so,” he said in an e-mail, is “another symptom that our communication and conversational lives are chopped up and discontinuous in actual fact, but that we try in several ways to sew them together — or ‘so’ them together, as it were — in order to create a continuous experience.”

Perhaps we all live now in fear that a conversation could snap at any moment, interrupted by so many rival offerings. With “so,” we beg to be heard. This, we insist, is what you’ve been waiting to hear; this is the “so” moment.


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