TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We don't usually notice little words as like and well until someone draws our attention to them. Then all of a sudden, they jump out at us. Lately, people have been getting worked up over two uses of the conjunction, so. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has these thoughts.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: To listen to the media tell it, so is busting out all over, or at least at the beginning of a sentence. The New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas calls it the new um and like. It's like a lot of other grammatical fixations - not everybody cares about it, but the ones who do care care a whole lot. When NPR's Weekend Edition asked listeners last year to pick the most misused word or phrase in the language, that sentence-initial so came in in second place, right behind between you and I and ahead of venerable bugbears like misusing literally and confusing who and whom. That's a meteoric rise for a peeve that wasn't even on the radar a decade ago.
NPR itself has been singled out for the overuse of so by both interviewees and hosts. That prompted the NPR head of standards and practices to calculate how many times the host and reporters on the major NPR news programs had started sentences with so in a single week. When the total came to 237, he urged them to look for alternatives. But not so fast. When you break that weekly figure down, it only comes to one sentence beginning with so every 8 or 10 minutes. That isn't actually very many particularly when you're running a lot of interviews. After all, so is a conversational workhorse. It introduces a new topic, it connects causes to results, it sets up a joke. So what's it like being Justin Bieber? So do the low interest rates help farmers? So three gastroenterologists walk into a bar.
Starting sentences with so isn't a trend or a thing. However it may strike you, people aren't doing it any more frequently than they were 50 or a hundred years ago. The only difference is that back then, nobody had much of a problem with it. When Scott Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins, sat down with him to go over the manuscript of "The Great Gatsby," he didn't say Scott, this last line, so we beat on, boats against the current, et cetera, et cetera - I think we need to go with thus.
So why the recent hue and cry about those sentences beginning with so? In part, you could blame the quirk of perception I think of as the Andy Rooney effect where you suddenly become keenly aware of a common word that's been part of the conversational wallpaper up to now. Somebody says, have you noticed how everybody's saying OK before they hang up the phone? And all at once, the word starts jumping out at you even though people have been using it that way forever. But a lot of the complaints about sentences beginning with so are really triggered by a particular use of the word that's genuinely new. It's the so that you hear from people who can't answer a question without bringing you up to speed on the back story. I go to the Apple Store and ask the guy at the Genius Bar why my laptop's running slow. He starts by saying, so Macs have two different kinds of disk permissions. If that so were a chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, in which it is explained what the reader must know before his question can be given a proper answer.
Scientists have been using that back-story so among themselves since the 1980s. But its recent spread is probably due to the tech boom. In his 2001 book "The New New Thing," Michael Lewis noted that programmers always started their answers with so. That's around the time when I first heard it working at a Silicon Valley research center. Mark Zuckerberg answers questions with so all the time.
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MARK ZUCKERBERG: So it comes down to the economics of how this works. It turns out that most of the Internet is consumed by rich media, especially videos. Whereas if you look at things like text - so text messages, services like search or Wikipedia or basic financial or health information, that can actually be delivered for relatively cheaply and can often consume less than 1 percent of the overall infrastructure. So if you're thinking about building something that operators are...
NUNBERG: But by now, that back-story so is endemic among members of the explaining classes, the analysts, scientists and policy wonks who populate the Rolodexes of CNBC and the "PBS NewsHour." To my ear, that back-story so is merely a little geeky. But it rouses some critics to keening indignation. A BBC host says that speakers use it to sound important and intellectual. A columnist at Fast Company warns that it undermines your credibility. A psychologist writes that it's a weasel word that people use to avoid giving a straight answer. That's a lot to lay on the back of a little blue-collar conjunction like so.
But that back-story so can stand in for people's impatience with the experts who use it. When you hear a labor economist or a computer scientist begin an answer with so, they're usually telling us that things are more complicated than we thought and may be more complicated than we really want to know. That may be why they were called in in the first place, but as Walter Whitman once said, the facts exceed our curiosity.
That back-story so puts me on guard, too, even when I hear it coming out of my own mouth. Usually it introduces some background qualification that the question calls out for as in, so German isn't actually a romance language. But sometimes it announces some nugget of specialized linguistic knowledge that I feel I have to share. If that so were the chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, in which the reader is asked, are you sitting comfortably?
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. If you want to catch up on recent FRESH AIR interviews you missed like with Jonathan Franzen and with the author of a book about autism and whether there really is an autism epidemic and our tribute to Oliver Sacks, check out our podcast.
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