May 15, 2014 at 11:59 AM ET
So, sometimes it feels difficult to start a sentence without using the word “So.”
Over the past 40 years, we have come to depend on the little word. The BBC called for it to be banished for overuse in 2013. On his radio program Le Show, comedian Harry Shearer has a segment called “Just Say So,” where he highlights interviews with people gratuitously using so—subjects range from politicians to actors to scientists to business people.
Lake Superior State University, which prohibits worn-out words annually, called for its disuse all the way back to 1999. It is so ubiquitous that we analyze how many times Mark Zuckerberg says it during an interview (Zuck uses so a lot).
The little two-letter blurb, when used to start a sentence, is raising the level of language ire previously reserved for uptalking and, the teen slang fave, "like."
It has become so ubiquitous, some business experts say it undermines the speaker’s credibility. A recent Fast Company story claims the overuse of "so" implies we're dumbing down our comments and aren't comfortable with what we're saying. But speech and language experts say, "Not so." It’s a response that helps create comaraderie and introduce listeners to an idea — a mild warning that some heavy content is coming.
“There are different types of so,” says Galina Bolden, an associate professor in the communication department at Rutgers University. She finds we often use so to make an inference.
Bolden looked at how we use so before questions. In a query such as, “So, how was your trip?” the so indicates prior knowledge.
“It suggests a relationship to another conversation and [the person’s] interest,” she says.
But people often answer questions with a "so," and this serves a different purpose. In this case, so introduces the listeners to an idea.
“In responses to questions I think it is [used] in interactions between experts and non-experts. [It says] I have to give you some background research first,” she says, noting she is not an expert on this usage of so.
As to whether this use of so is insulting to the audience Bolden replies:
“I think people have feelings about this and there is no research on it.”
Amee Shah, an associate professor and research director of the Speech Acoustics & Perception Laboratory at Cleveland State University, says that using so doesn’t mean that someone is uneducated or lacks confidence, despite some feeling that this is the case.
“It shows that whatever is coming up next will be content heavy,” she says, adding that sometimes using so is involuntary such as using, "um," "well," or "you know."
But "so" has another usage. It can emphasize something, as in “I am so hungry.” This became popular in the 1990s and some have speculated that the TV show "Friends" ushered so into an adverbial role, Bolden says.
“It occurs in different positions and contexts and the context gives it meaning and flavor. The word itself has very little meaning,” she says.
Trying to rid "so" from conversation is tough. Shaw found in her research that trying to train speakers to use so less makes them say it more.
“The moment you are paying attention to it [you use so more],” Shah says.
Sometimes using a word, such as "so," "like," or "I know," creates a sense of camaraderie among speakers. Shah found herself using like after she started teaching undergrads. While it might be inappropriate in academic papers, it creates a sense of sameness.
“We are very adaptable. When we notice people around us talk a certain way, we pick it up subconsciously,” she says.
Bolden found this to be the case with the response "I know." Her research finds that speakers use it to express empathy.
“It’s not really about what you know or don’t know but [it’s] about your stance,” she says. “[I’m] coming from the same place that you are coming from.”