The Grammarphobia Blog

Is all well that begins well?

Q: The words “so” and “well” are often the first ones that talking heads utter. Example: “So, Catherine, give us an update on the world. Well, Martha, the world is still round.” I know they aren’t needed here, but are they used properly?

A: Yes, “so” and “well” are properly used in sentences like those. But they do seem to be overused by on-air reporters and interviewers.

Many people have asked us about the use of “so” to introduce a remark. In fact, we had a blog item a couple of years ago about this usage.

As for “well,” it’s an adverb, but in this case it doesn’t modify a verb. Instead, it’s used almost like an interjection (or even a throat-clearer).

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of the adverb:

“Employed without construction to introduce a remark or statement, sometimes implying that the speaker or writer accepts a situation, etc., already expressed or indicated, or desires to qualify this in some way, but frequently used merely as a preliminary or resumptive word.”

So “well” can be used merely to introduce a conversation (“Well, what do you think about so and so?”) or resume one (“Well, let’s get back to the subject of so and so”).

One thing you can say in favor of this usage is that it has a lot of history.

The OED’s first citation comes from King Alfred’s translation of  Boethius into Old English, circa 888: “Wella, wisan men, …” (Well, wise men, …).

The word has been steadily used in this way ever since.

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