Wednesday, 31 May 2017


Phew! The afternoon has turned very hot. I ought to be getting back to shifting and raking soil in the back garden, but I'll wait until it gets a little cooler. Meanwhile, I can spend time usefully on another post.

This one's about an annoying speaking habit that I've noticed in recent months. It may have been around for a much longer time, but lately it's become distinctly fashionable. I notice it because I listen to the radio a lot, and concentrate on what people are saying, and how they say it.

So, what's the issue for me? It's the little word I've just used: so.

'So' is a very useful word indeed. We all use it an awful lot. It's not just for sentences such as:

I didn't wake up this morning, so I was late for work.
I forgot to take my purse, so I had no cash with me.
I remembered not to go that way, so that's why I've got here on time.
You're much, much younger than me, so of course you wouldn't remember seeing him on TV.

In all these sentences, the first part explains the second part. Here, 'so' means 'and because of that'.

What about that sentence above, 'So, what's the issue for me?' It's similar to these:

So how did that important interview go?
So what were the results of those tests?
So did you get to see all the things you wanted to?
So who turned up in the end?

In these sentences 'so' seems to be a speech particle, a word one says when something has happened that you want to know about, and by saying 'so' you're picking up on that event or events, and signifying that you're about to ask what the outcome was. 'So' could be replaced here by noises like 'Aha!' or phrases like 'Tell me...'.

So far so good. (Look! Another use of 'so' - what a great little word it is!) But what is the particular usage that is now bothering me?

It occurs when someone asks a probing question that needs a careful answer. I listen to BBC Radio 4's midday consumer programme You and Yours most days, and the presenters often ask someone - a spokesperson for a trade body, for example - to explain why something has gone wrong for a group of customers, or why something can't be done to protect people from some malpractice. Whatever the presenter says, however he or she puts it, the person on the spot is as likely as not to start their reply with 'So...'. And not just the once. Every time they open their mouth it's with a 'So...'.

What's going on?

The 'so' they speak is absolutely redundant. It would make no difference if their reply omitted it. It's as if they were prefixing their reply with a 'Well...' or some other similar filler-word that buys time to think. Except that their reply is never hesitant. Not at all. It sounds confident of the facts, and aims to convince. The tone says 'I absolutely do know the true position here, and I'm going to give you a clear and frank reason why we haven't been able to help our customers.' And the 'So...' (which is a much more assertive noise than 'Well...') reinforces that confident tone. Clearly the 'So...' is meant to suggest that no further discussion is necessary. That's the explanation, it says, straight from the horse's mouth. Nothing else need be said about this. It's a speech particle to quell enquiry.

A couple of things here.

First, I have heard it only when somebody is being pressed to explain something, and their response has to have the ring of truth and authority. So it's being used in a moment of pressure. That might be important.

Second, perhaps coincidentally - or perhaps not - I've heard it only from the lips of men. And, moreover, men who sound educated, professional, and still young. The sort to bamboozle you with their quick minds and ways with words. (If any women - of any age or background - use 'so' in this way, I haven't noticed) I'm guessing that when such a man is facing questions, he wants to come back with a strong answer intended not only to defend his position, but to avoid looking incompetent in the eyes of his superiors or fee-payers. Losing face would be fatal. A measured response preceded with 'So...' can sound both well-considered and persuasive. And if it does satisfy the questioner, then it's job done, kudos earned, and other men duly impressed.

I don't mind an isolated use of 'so' in this way. But when it precedes every sentence they utter it becomes an irritating affectation that the speaker would do well to unlearn. And it sounds ridiculous when you hear exchanges on these lines:

Questioner: So you do admit it would be easy to recompense any overcharged customer?
Respondent: So I'm saying it can't be done without a change in the law.

I don't suppose this silly use of 'so' will fade away quickly. In fact I'm expecting it to gather further momentum. Then suddenly it will be dropped, when something newer and trendier takes its place.

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