The Grammarphobia Blog

A little so-and-so

Q: I’ve always believed the word “so” requires “that” when introducing a clause: “There was a fire in the subway, so that it took me an hour to get to work.” But I hear an awful lot of “so”-ing without “that”-ing these days. Comment, please?

A: Not every “so” demands a “that” when introducing a clause. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “that” is optional in a sentence like yours where the “so” clause states the result or consequence of something.

The dictionary gives this example of a sentence in which either “so” or “so that” is perfectly acceptable: The Bay Bridge was still closed, so (or so that) the drive from San Francisco to the Berkeley campus took an hour and a half.

American Heritage notes, however, that many sticklers insist “so must be followed by that in formal writing when used to introduce a clause giving the reason for or purpose of an action: He stayed so that he could see the second feature.“

But even here, the dictionary says, “since many respected writers use so for so that in formal writing, it seems best to consider the issue one of stylistic preference: The store stays open late so (or so that) people who work all day can buy groceries.”

“So” may be a little word, but there’s a lot to say about it.

It goes back to Old English, when it was first recorded (as swa) in about 725. In those days it was often strengthened by the addition of eall (meaning “altogether” or “wholly”), and the Old English eall swa, all swa, and so on eventually gave us our words “as,” “so,” and “also.”

“So” is extremely useful. Here are the principal meanings (and grammatical functions) of “so” today:

An adverb, meaning “to such an extent”: I was so hungry that I drooled.

An adverb, meaning “to a great extent”: She is so selfish.

An adverb, meaning “consequently”: We were bored and so left early.

An adverb, meaning “afterward” or “then”: We went home and so to bed.

An adverb, meaning “likewise”: He was tired and so was she.

An adverb, meaning “apparently”: So you think you’ve got it bad?

An adverb, meaning “indeed”: You are not! I am so!

An adjective, meaning “true”: Tell me it isn’t so.

An adverb meaning “in this manner”: She dresses just so.

An adjective, meaning “right” or “orderly”: Their kitchen is just so.

A conjunction, meaning “with the result that”: The band didn’t show, so we left.

A conjunction, meaning “in order that”: I work hard so my boss will take notice.

A pronoun, meaning “the same” or “as specified”: She was born feisty and remained so.

An interjection, like “Aha!”: So! This is what you’ve been up to.

Can you stand a little more? I wrote a blog item a while back about the use of “so far” in place of “thus far.” And another item about the use of “so” at the beginning of a negative comparison (“She’s not so tall as her sister”). And, in parting, an entry about “so long.”

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