Q: I’ve noticed a speech habit the last few years that bugs me: beginning a sentence, particularly a response, with “so.” I hear it all the time on NPR; if anything, it’s a habit of more educated people. Am I fussing about nothing?
A: You aren’t the first person to write me about this tendency of people on NPR – both interviewers and interviewees – to use “so” indiscriminately at the beginning of sentences.
Why do they do it?
I’m guessing here, but interviewers may begin their questions with “so” because it’s an easy way to get into a topic without taking the trouble to find a more graceful entry.
And interviewees may use “so” because it gives them a moment to gather their thoughts – that is, to stall for time.
Although many people find this “so” business annoying, it’s not ungrammatical. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says the use of “so” as “an introductory particle” goes back to Shakespeare’s day.
Interviewers as well as interviewees tend to run out of new ideas after a while, and when one of them starts briskly with “so,” then others jump on the usage.
Thus the thing snowballs as it becomes more popular, and eventually starts to resemble a verbal tic permeating the airwaves.
Scientists and academics may be more prone to this habit, since “so” is a handy way of leading from one related idea to another.
The overuse of “so” in interviews will probably go away when it starts to sound too worn-out. And so it goes.
In case you’re interested, I wrote a blog entry a while back about “so” at the beginning of a clause. The posting has links to some related uses of “so.”