So a linguist and a blogger walked into a bar…

Nothing stirs up readers like English usage. Several have responded to my earlier post about a habit many interviewees have recently developed: beginning their answers with, “So…” John Hugh Edwards got the ball rolling here, but CBC’s Quirks and Quarks had interviewed a linguist about this verbal tic more than a year ago.

Jonathan Dursi, a “young academic” from U of T, writes:

It’s definitely *not* an American thing; it’s much broader than that.  My generation of academics do this. No idea where we picked it up from, if not from the previous generation. Just as [Simon Fraser linguist Maite Taboada] said: it’s a marker for “I’m introducing something new here” or “I’m going to answer your question, but I have to give you a bunch of background information first.”

Well, the “introducing new topic” explanation doesn’t fit with placing the word at the start of a specific answer to a specific question. But the “First here’s some background information you need” could be right.

Our friend CD Cook has really gone to town:

Beginning a sentence or utterance with so, for no apparent reason that falls within defined use of the word, appears to be a new phenomenon in English that is not restricted at all to academics. See discussions here, here, here, and here. It is clearly being noticed across the board(s).

This blogger has noticed this use of ‘so’ in tech talk, and offers a plausible explanation:

“‘So’ suggests the speaker is continuing a previous train of thought. ‘So’ is a conjunction that can be used to connect two clauses. Perhaps it’s a way for a slightly anxious speaker to launch into their talk with a feeling that they are already on a roll rather than starting from a cold start.In any case, it’s a redundant element at the start of a sentence, that seems to have crept into wide use. I hope it dies out.”

Good luck on that one. Cook goes on to raise another possibility:

When someone is asked to give a response in an interview, their answer may first go through their mind in terms they are comfortable with (professional jargon etc), but they quickly process it into something they discern as more palatable for a lay audience. They may do this reduction process mentally, and then use so as a joining word between the two.  I think this links very much with the idea presented above in the technical talk blog that the person is either using this to link to things they have processed internally, or they don’t want to start their talk cold, so to speak.

So how about you get off the back of the academics? It’s probably the frigging teenagers who started it all anyway.