So why do people feel compelled to start every sentence with ‘so’?
We live in the Age of So. Dot Wordsworth commented on it in these pages recently, though was lost for an explanation. The phenomenon was illustrated on Radio 5 Live’s Drive programme a while back, when Peter Allen interviewed Steve Robertson of BT OpenReach about the expansion of superfast broadband.
Allen: ‘What will actually happen?’
Within minutes listeners were emailing to express irritation at this growing habit of starting every answer with the word ‘so’. Offenders tend to be PR spokesmen — though even politicians are doing it. Witness Grant Shapps on the Today programme, asked about housing benefit changes: ‘So, I think there are three things...’ What’s going on here?
Part of the answer might be the need to belong. ‘It’s called “accommodation”,’ says Dr Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of the department of applied linguistics and communication at Birkbeck College. ‘We accommodate, and converge with, the group of people we want to belong to. Someone using “so” like this may well be doing it because they’ve heard other people doing it. It spreads like the flu.’ This might explain how the So epidemic is spreading, but not how it started. Why use the word this way in the first place?
‘It’s a good way of giving yourself time to think,’ says the PR consultant Cherry Chappell. ‘Even a short word like “so” gives you that fraction of a second you need to plan your answer. And it has a more positive feel than similar mechanisms, such as “let me just say”, “erm” or “like”.’
But that doesn’t alter the fact that it makes no grammatical sense. Chappell offers a more nuanced argument. ‘“So” might also be used to deflect a pointed question, or as a way of carrying on making your point if your interviewer has interrupted. Some Today interrogators try to throw their interviewees with sparky interruptions.’
True, though usually because their question hasn’t been answered. During last year’s volcanic ash cloud, Justin Webb asked a spokesman for National Air Traffic Services whether all flights might be grounded. ‘So, as you know there’s a volcanic ash cloud...’ ‘So, as I said, safety’s our number one priority...’, ‘So, we have restricted flights...’ Only when Webb persisted did the ‘so’ get dropped. ‘Yeah, I mean, volcanic ash poses serious hazards…’ said the spokesman, before conceding that a total ban was possible.
Perhaps that is the point. Rather than deflecting a question, could ‘so’ be a tool for covering up that you’re deflecting it? ‘The word is a marker of cause and result,’ says Dr Gardner-Chloros. ‘Someone who starts an answer with “so” is marking that what he’s saying is coherent with what came before — the question. He’s saying what he wants to say, like a politician — but trying to make it sound like it’s an answer to the question.’
If this is the case, then So-sayers are planting the seeds of their own linguistic destruction. As the technique grows in popularity, we will come to recognise it more easily. It will take on the status of Harrison Ford’s tests in Blade Runner, used to tell androids from humans. Hear someone start an answer with ‘so’, and you’ll know you’re about to be spoonfed some pre-cooked PR-speak. A more sophisticated version of the old joke about knowing a politician is lying because his lips are moving.
Or could it be that So-sayers are deliberately — though subconsciously — sabotaging their own answers? As they trot out the soundbites, toeing a company line so often their toe gets blisters, do they yearn to rebel? ‘Yes,’ runs the subtext, ‘I am aware how artificial this all is. That’s why I’m deliberately starting every reply with a word that doesn’t belong there. Can we all take that as a sign that I’m only doing this job because I’ve got a mortgage to pay? When I’m down the pub I talk normally, you know.’
Either way, interviewers now have scope for fun. ‘I thought I’d try treating fire with fire,’ says James Hayes, an editor on Engineering and Technology magazine. The result was sublime:
Interviewee: ‘So one of the ways in which we add value for our customers...’
As ye so, so shall ye reap.