Matters of speech

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An intriguing, perhaps insidious, pattern of speech has invaded American English in the past decade. Increasingly, speakers preface responses to questions with "so." For example, "How do SAT scores influence university admission decisions?" "So, we seldom rely on a single datum point in candidate assessment."

Users of this misplaced conjunction tend to be younger than 40, often academics, technical professionals or artists. The first several times I heard "so," I assumed it to be a clumsy substitute for the ubiquitous "Well ..." as prelude to an answer. In many cases, however, it takes on a tone of condescending authority.

The conjunction "so" often stands in for "therefore" after a phrase intended to justify a following consequence. "He had saved plenty of money, so generosity came easily." Today's user of the introductory "so" seems to be citing an authority which has not been established. It sounds as though the authority is quite obvious, or well beyond the listener's understanding, so that expressing it would be futile.

The note of condescension comes with "so's" frequent companion: rising inflection at each phrase's conclusion. The speaker appears to sense a need to spoon-feed responses, with a little hesitation for the listener to swallow each.

I recognize that "well" and "so" can be an attempt to soften the abruptness of an answer, but it is an unnecessary crutch. If your response requires "so," kindly supply the preceding justification. If it does not, go ahead, launch right into your statement. We can take it! And, please, raise your inflection only when posing a question.




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