September 13, 2021

So in thinking bubble

It is a linguistic trend: the use of the word “so” at the start of a sentence. The New York Times recently looked into that trend along with other current linguistic habits to understand what language usage may reveal about our society. The Times asked Syelle Graves (Linguistics ’18), the assistant director of the Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context at the Graduate Center, to parse it out. 

The Times story, “The Rise and Fall of ‘ZuckTalk,’” takes on language usage from Mark Zuckerberg’s ending of sentences with “right?” to lingo in which speakers start sentences with “so,” implying a kind of back story shorthand, to the use of a right/so construction, as in the Zuckerberg quote, “in terms of augmented reality, right, so there is virtual reality.” According to the article, these words are “tools for the explainers among us” and their origin and proliferation have been traced to Silicon Valley, programmers, podcasts, and TED-style talks. 

Graves analyzed the use of the word “so” in her dissertation, New Use of an Old Discourse Marker: The Interface of Implicit Attitudes, Explicit Attitudes, and Rapid Language Change of "So," and found that usage of “so,” often in place of “well,” has significantly increased since the late 1990s. Irritation with its overuse has increased as well. 

Graves collected data from online posts and from a survey she conducted. She found that women and men who started sentences with “so” were considered equally annoying. She told the Times, “In a nutshell, the woman who answered with back story ‘so’ was rated as less authoritative, more trendy and more like a ‘valley girl’ than the exact same woman who answered questions with well.”

She continued, “The man who answered questions with back story ‘so’ was less likable, more condescending and more like a ‘tech bro’ than the exact same recording of the exact same man who answered with ‘well.’” Those using this Silicon Valley speak were generally “perceived as less intelligent, less professionally competent and less mature, among other things.”

So, this trend will continue, right? Yes, for now.