So, let’s talk about grammatical quirks

By Norman Knight

So granddaughter Lorelei is telling me about her day, and I find myself becoming distracted. This is because she seems to be starting every other sentence with the word “so.”

Me: How was your day?

Lorelei: Fun. So we are having a Pioneer Day at school, and I have been working on my costume.

Me: It looks great.

Lorelei: So Mom and I are trying to come up with a bonnet to go with the dress.

Me: Hmm. Maybe you could sew one.

I can’t help it. It is beyond my control. I cannot not notice when I hear language usage and patterns that seem to be different from the more traditional ways I know. I call it the curse of the English teacher.

I try not to point it out when I hear people speak in a non-standard way. I don’t want to be one of those know-it-all types. I certainly don’t want to come across as judgmental, especially since I often pause to check myself before I decide to go with “who” rather than “whom.” Old language habits die hard.

It was some years ago when I first noticed that Lorelei’s mother would occasionally begin her sentences with the word “so.” I chalked it up to her youth, to her generation’s way of making the language its own. Maybe hearing her mom use “so” at the beginning of sentences is how Lorelei got started, although I suspect it is more than that. It has been in broad cultural usage for a while now.

Some people who pay close attention to language offer an interesting explanation as to how this use of “so” came to be widespread. In his 2001 book about Silicon Valley, “The New New Thing,” author Michael Lewis noticed that programmers, especially at Microsoft, would constantly begin their sentences with “so.” From this comes the idea that the speech habits of the computer culture has linguistically trickled down to everyday language.

Linguists note that people starting sentences this way often are preparing to answer your question but feel the need to first give you a “backstory” to set the stage for their reply. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is well-known for starting many of his sentences this way. In a New York Times interview a few years ago, he used “so” four times in his first answer.

Another way an initial “so” has worked its way into our modern speech is to announce a new topic or change the subject. People who study language also argue that a question like “So how are things going?” contributes to social interaction.

Linguist Galena Bolden says, “It communicates the speaker is interested in or concerned about the recipient … it also invokes prior conversations between the speaker and the recipient.” Anything that contributes to positive communication between people is a good thing, it seems to me.

Of course, using “so” can become an involuntary habit. Just like “um,” “well” and “you know,” the word “so” is used sometimes as a pause while we collect our thoughts. Nothing wrong with having those tools in your linguistic toolbox as long as they aren’t overused.

One issue I have with this tendency to focus on a particular usage is that I start to notice it everywhere. What was once merely part of the unobtrusive matrix of conversation now jumps out at me. I cannot not hear it.

Focusing on grammatical quirks like “so” is something I just do, and I understand that others don’t have this compulsion. That’s OK — I’m not judging. It’s like the writer and language aficionado Geoff Nunberg noted: Not everybody cares about such things, but the ones who do care care a whole lot.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.