KERRY HUBARTT: So, what’s the big deal with starting a sentence with ‘so’

Kerry Hubartt

So recently I’ve been noticing something strikingly prevalent in the American vernacular that has made me curious.

So if you listen to interviews on radio or TV you are definitely going to notice this particular tendency, no question. So I’ve been paying particular attention to National Public Radio, particularly “Morning Edition” and the afternoon’s “All Things Considered.” The answers given to questions (and many of the questions) will invariably begin with the word “so.”

So I “Googled it,” of course, and I found quite a bit written about the subject, including an article entitled “So what’s the big deal with starting a sentence with ‘so’?” — it was by NPR.

Writer Geoff Nunberg pointed out that New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas calls “so” the new “um” and “like.”

“NPR itself has been singled out for overuse of ‘so’ by both interviewees and hosts,” Nunberg wrote. “That prompted the NPR head of standards and practices to calculate how many times the hosts and reporters on the major NPR news programs had started sentences with ‘so’ in a single week in August of 2014. When the total came to 237, he urged them to look for alternatives.”

An article by business magazine Fast Company, also in 2014, said business-types need to drop the use of “so” at the start of sentences for three main reasons: It insults your audience, undermines your credibility and demonstrates discomfort with the subject matter.

Fast Company’s Hunter Thurman wrote that a speaker’s use of “so” indicates something rehearsed and dumbed-down. He claims the word alienates your audience.

Business Insider came back with a different take after that attack, however, saying “linguistically, the use of ‘so’ at the beginning of sentences can serve an important function.”

The publication cited Galindo Bolden, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, “whose research concluded ‘so’ at the start of a question often marks the beginning of a new topic that one of the parties wants to discuss, often called an ‘interactional agenda,'” and indicates the question has been on the person’s mind.

Business Insider also pointed to a New York Times report that journalist Michael Lewis noticed the prevalence of the use of the word “so” when exploring Silicon Valley for his 2001 book “The New Thing.” He claims programmers started, or at least popularized, beginning answers with ‘so.’

“‘So’ cuts across the borders within the computing class just as ‘like’ cuts across the borders within the class of adolescent girls,” he wrote.

Back to the NPR article on the subject: Nunberg wrote, “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 100 years ago. The only difference is that back then nobody had much of a problem with it.”

Well, I might agree that I don’t have much of a problem with it, but I would think if it’s nothing new I would have noticed it a long time ago. Now it’s everywhere.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.