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The Word Guy: That nasty ‘so’ and ‘so’ opens sentences

Tribune-Review
| Friday, November 14, 2014 5:41 p.m.

So … a lot of people are starting their sentences with annoying, useless words and phrases. I mean, my readers are starting to notice. Look, it’s rampant.

David Howe of Avon, Conn., wonders about the “so”ing together of sentences, as in, “So, how was your test today?” “So, your mother called.”

“I suspect we’re just trying to alert the listener (‘Breaker 1-9′),” Howe writes, “but it sounds as if we’re about to explain the consequences of all prior conversation.”

Such “so-so” openers, he suggests, are the oral equivalent of extended email threads, chats or texting.

He’s onto something there. The sentence-opening “so” seems to mimic the pauses between messages in these new forms of electronic communication.

Thus, the spoken “so” becomes the equivalent of the little dots that pop up on your cellphone to show that someone is typing a response to your text (…).

Some of my students are even beginning to write the sentence-opening “so.” Just yesterday, I read this answer on a test: “So … a group of western Pennsylvania farmers got together. …”

“So” also seems to reflect the tentative, listener-sensitive “Are you with me?” tone of young people’s oral communication, a trend best exemplified by “uptalk” (raising one’s intonation at the end of declarative sentences, as if asking a question).

Similarly, Mark Friden of Cranberry Lake, N.Y., writes that more and more people are starting sentences with “I mean” — not to explain or clarify previous statements, but simply to provide a filler.

Tennis players, he notes, are particularly “mean”-prone; he cites this example from an interview with Maria Sharapova: “I mean, it was all I could do to keep up with her.”

“Mean”while, an emailer named “Niheala” writes that she’s fed up with another type of sentence icebreaker: the imperative “look,” as in “Look, we’re doing all we can.”

President Barack Obama, for example, used “look” 26 times during one of his first news conferences and still can’t seem to break the “look-ism” habit.

But while “look” may seem confrontational, defensive or even condescending, some linguists speculate that it simply signals that the speaker is about to provide explanatory information; they note that President Ronald Reagan deftly used “well” this way.

Such subtleties aside, Niheala asks, “Doesn’t anyone just begin with the subject of the sentence anymore?”

So … I mean … look … no!

Rob Kyff is a teacher in West Hartford, Conn. Send reports of misuse and abuse to Wordguy@aol.com or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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