As Laurie Anderson sang, “Language is a virus”. Recently, I’ve noticed a particularly virulent infection running through academia, in which the speaker starts a sentence with “So,…” Mr. Bsag and I had a conversation about this after he had listened to an episode of ‘In Our Time’ on the radio in which one of the participants had started almost every sentence that way. It annoyed him. It annoys me too, and yet it is such an infectious construction that I find myself using it anyway.
I’m not sure when this fad started, but it has become more and more common. Once you notice it, you can’t stop hearing it everywhere. It tends to be used in circumstances in which the speaker wants to give the impression that they are immediately ready with an answer to your question, but that they are currently engaged in formulating the best way to explain something complicated. For example, you might be having a conversation with someone about research and someone asks you, “Does anyone know why octopuses are so intelligent?” and you reply “So, we know that…”. If you’re me, you then cringe because before you started the answer you were repeating to yourself like a mantra, “Don’t say ‘so’, don’t say ‘so’” and yet you listen — horrified — as that treacherous little word falls out of your mouth anyway.
I think I dislike it because it’s such a meaningless construction. It adds nothing and is more or less a substitute for ‘um’ or ’err’ or a silent pause. But it’s deceptive because it somehow conveys confidence and preparedness, and a puppyish enthusiasm to pour your vast store of knowledge into the listener’s brain, when in fact you are just stalling for a few seconds while you think how to answer. I have been trying to pause before I answer instead, but once these linguistic trends have become entrenched in a population (in this case, the academic population), it is almost impossible to resist them.
I was thinking about how these things come into being the other day as I read about a paper on the use of ‘yo’ by Baltimore school children as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. I haven’t read the original paper yet, so I don’t know how convincing the evidence of this usage is. Linguists have apparently tried for years to introduce a formal gender-neutral singular pronoun to English (in order to avoid mis-using ’they’) and failed, but I can believe that a form invented by school children might turn out to be much more sticky.