I wrote up some Shakespeare and language news just a few days ago, but I wanted to write again and mention the word, “so.” With the fluidity of text on the internet we have more access to people’s speech and writing patterns than ever before, and we can think and talk about it as these patterns change. When “because” became a preposition on Facebook and YouTube, serious magazines took note and wrote about it. As “bragadocious,” “defriend,” and “geekery” enter the OED, we hear about it, and chances are we know the words before the dictionaries do. Right now there’s some discussion about the word “so” and its place in our culture, and what using it as the start of a sentence does to one’s credibility.
While asking, “What do Mark Zuckerberg and Shakespeare have in Common?” Jonathan Brown answers for the Independent with one little word. In his article about the word, Brown compares Shakespeare’s “So, now I have confess’d that he is thine, And I myself am mortgag’d to thy will” to Mark Zuckerburg’s “So, what we want to do is build a pipeline of experiences for people to have.” In fact, Zuckerberg’s recent interview with the New York Times used the word “so” as the start to a sentence four times while just answering the first question. Only one of those times was the “so” necessary for the meaning of the sentence, the other three times (and elsewhere in the interview) the word is just a placeholder, perhaps making a bit of a move like “therefore” but without needing the context.
Brown’s article looks at the history of this use of the word, “The trend was first identified back in 1999 as the discourse marker of choice among pre-dot.com bubble Silicon Valley programmers. Linguistics scholar Galina Bolden of Rutgers University is a global authority on the word and has made around a hundred hours of field recordings of everyday conversations between family and friends.” An article from Fast Company (and the enthusiastic comments) suggest three reasons why unnecessarily beginning sentences with “so” will undermine your credibility. Hunter Thurman writes, “It’s actually a damaging tendency. Beginning your sentence with “so” orients your message and subconsciously alerts your audience that what you’re about to say is different than what you’ve been talking about up until this point.” That very tendency of the word to change the tenor or topic of the conversation has been used to great effect. I don’t mean by Shakespeare, but by Seamus Heaney in his translation of Beowulf.
For years scholars had been translating the opening Old English word “hwat” as “Listen!” or “Lo!” or “Attend!” or “Hear me!” but Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated this word as “so.” When explaining this choice Heaney points to the modern usage of the word as a dismissal of previous conversation. After explaining the dilemma, he writes, “But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”
Does Shakespeare use “so” in the same way? He does. Not to the extent that Zuckerberg does in his interview, but he uses it in choice moments. Here are some examples from All’s Well that Ends Well.
Concluding a conversation: “So, my good window of lattice, fare thee well”
In response to a kindness: “Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher: so, I thank thee”
In response to an account: “So you were a knave at his service, indeed”
As a character has a blindfold lifted: “So, look about you: know you any here?”
After telling a riddle in verse: “So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick.”
Some of these sound a little formal or presentational, perhaps even pompous, but they serve a purpose in the sentences, and show that as much as it can be used as a means of insincerity, we needn’t draw hasty conclusions from hearing the word in conversation. Mark Zuckerberg may just be falling back on a common word for comfort. Although Thurman’s advice holds solid, and “so” should probably be avoided when unnecessary, shouldn’t we all strive for clearer, simpler and more direct language?