Viewing the evolution of language positively

Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who gave frequent commentaries on NPR’s Fresh Air radio program died recently at the age of 75. I enjoyed listening to his views because, although not a linguist myself, I enjoy exploring the nuances and quirks of the English language and Nunberg’s opinions were always interesting and informative. He was not a scold, trying to police people’s speech. Instead he explored how and why language evolves and what its use tells us about ourselves and the state of society.

Consider his take on the ‘singular they’, something that I too wrote about recently. Nunberg writes about his mystification to the opposition to its adoption.

It’s not a lot to ask — just a small courtesy and sign of respect. In fact, the accommodations we’re being asked to make to nonbinary individuals are much less far-reaching than the linguistic changes that feminists called for 50 years ago. Yet the reactions this time have been even more vehement than they were back then.

A fifth-grade teacher in Florida whose preferred pronouns are “they,” “them” and “their” was removed from the classroom when some parents complained about exposing their children to the transgender lifestyle. When the diversity and inclusion office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville published a guide to alternative pronouns in 2015, the state legislature promptly defunded the center and barred the university from promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the future. Like the classic episodes of pronoun rage in earlier eras, these aren’t about pronouns at all.

He is absolutely right is saying that these objections are not really about pronouns at all. They are about people expressing disapproval at the increasing acceptance of others who are not like them.

Numberg also spoke about the practice of starting a sentence with the word ‘so’, something I know that I that do very often. This practice has been criticized by some as being an annoying filler word, similar to the ‘like’ used by younger people that has been widely mocked. But Nunberg says that there is substance to the use of ‘so’ as a conjunction. It is doing some serious work.

Starting sentences with “so” isn’t a trend or a thing. However it may strike you, people aren’t doing it any more frequently than they were 50 or 100 years ago. The only difference is that back then nobody had much of a problem with it. When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins sat down with him to go over the manuscript of The Great Gatsby, he didn’t say: “Scott — this last line. ‘So, we beat on, boats against the current’ etc. etc.? I think we need to go with ‘thus.’ ”

Many of the complaints about sentences beginning with “so” are triggered by a specific use of the word that’s genuinely new. It’s the “so” that you hear from people who can’t answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the backstory. I go to the Apple Store and ask the guy at the Genius Bar why my laptop is running slow. He starts by saying, “So, Macs have two kinds of disk permissions …” If that “so” were a chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, “In which it is explained what the reader must know before his question can be given a proper answer.”

Scientists have been using that backstory “so” among themselves since the 1980s, but its recent spread is probably due to the tech boom. In his 2001 book The New New Thing, Michael Lewis noted that programmers always started their answers with “so.”

To my ear, that backstory “so” is merely a little geeky, but it rouses some critics to keening indignation. A BBC host says speakers use it to sound important and intellectual. A columnist at Fast Company warns that it undermines your credibility. A psychologist writes that it’s a weasel word that people use to avoid giving a straight answer.

That’s a lot to lay on the back of a little blue-collar conjunction like “so.” But that backstory “so” can stand in for people’s impatience with the experts who use it. When you hear a labor economist or computer scientist begin an answer with “so,” they’re usually telling us that things are more complicated than we thought, and maybe more complicated than we really want to know. That may be why they were called in in the first place, but as Walter Lippmann once said, the facts exceed our curiosity.

I had a faculty friend who would get incensed over the widespread use of ‘so’ by students (and also about their use of ‘like’) and viewed it as evidence of verbal laziness and a lack of logical thinking skills. At one meeting that I chaired, he got on this hobbyhorse and went on an extended rant about the use of ‘so’ by students and said that we as faculty needed to actively work to stamp it out. After I heard him out, I said, “So, George, what do you think we should do about it?” and the whole room cracked up.


  1. says

    “So”, “Because”, and “And” only appear at the beginning of sentences as a response to something else, one’s own words or someone else’s question or sentence. They function the same as a comma and lowercase letter. I don’t have a problem with them.

    What I don’t understand is the american predilection for ending with certain prepositions (e.g. “Do you want me to come with?”). It’s a hanging sentence, like a transitive (see what I did there?) verb spoken without an object (e.g. “I am going to see.” without saying “doctor”). Some prepositions sound normal (e.g. “How much does it come to?”), others don’t. Grammatical exactness is less important to me than not sounding awkward.

  2. Allison says

    “Do you want me to come with?”

    FWIW, that would be a perfectly normal sentence in German — “Ich komme mit”, and although the English I speak doesn’t have that particular construction (to come with), it is exactly parallel with others, such as “Do you want me to come by?” I think that grammarians class “by” in this case as an adverb, even though “by” is normally a preposition. I’ve always suspected that “come with” is a Germanism, since I’ve mostly heard it from Mid-westerners.

    “How much does it come to?” is a different case: an alternative version would be “to how much does it come?” But in modern English, there are many cases where a preposition that might be at the beginning of a clause can be moved to the end of it, e.g.:

    “the man with whom you spoke” -> “the man [who] you spoke with.”

  3. Allison says

    I have yet to see a language war that was about some language feature that actually caused any confusion. I do not think a single one of the people who complain about singular “they” does not actually understand it when used in context. It’s about power and privilege.

    For instance, “correct English” is pretty much defined as English spoken the way the most privileged speak. Speaking any other way instantly marks the speaker as not one of the privileged, someone who the more privileged can look down on and impute all manner of moral and intellectual failings to. The professor who threw tantrums over students’ use of “so” and “like” was IMHO trying to assert his superior status vis-a-vis the students, as you can tell by his disparaging them by imputing to them laziness and an inability to think logically.

    The story about the Tennessee state legislature outlawing the use of singular “they” reminds me of the times and places where the government outlaws the use of a minority group’s language — e.g., gaelic in Scotland, Native American languages in the US, etc. In those cases it’s clearly a power play — an attempt to exterminate a culture. The battle against singular “they” is just a small part of the attempt by those in power to outlaw and ultimately exterminate trans people. (Given that there is historical evidence for transgender behavior as far back as ancient Sumer, they’re not likely to succeed, but when has the futility of a policy ever led anyone to abandon it? But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that it gives them a pretext to abuse and persecute a bunch of people. As Grace Slick never sang, “Don’t you want somebody to hate? Don’t you _need_ somebody to hate?…”)

  4. Tadas says

    I’ve also read somewhere that starting sentences with “so” or “um” prompts the listener to pay attention to what is going to be said next. Without that prompt, the listener may miss important information by not clearly hearing the first word or two. I believe I do this unconsciously while simultaneously trying to think of the right words to say.

  5. Marja Erwin says

    Allison, #4.

    Singular you, and don’t put an adverb before an infinitive, and don’t use the Oxford comma, have all created confusion. So there are language wars for confusion.

    People have created extra-plural all y’all and its equivalents to work with singular you.

    People have often ignored the other rules. But the law often follows these rules, leaving things undecipherable. In particular, it’s unclear if the 1st Amendment text means “to peaceably assemble,” i.e. without committing violence or “to assemble peaceably,” i.e. without having to endure violence. Of course the system favors the former reading, and rule that one infiltrator can justify any violence, and protesters trying to stop one infiltrator can also.

  6. fentex says

    Intransitive:‘What I don’t understand is the american predilection for ending with certain prepositions (e.g. “Do you want me to come with?”).

    I did not know Americans did that until I noticed it on a TV program a while ago.
    I had thought that exact example “…want to come with?” was peculiarly British thing.

  7. says

    This brings to mind an old joke, if I can recall a reasonable version.

    A young linguist at a linguistics conference presented a long-winded analysis; his peroration: ‘Nowhere in any language at any time have two consecutive positives every been interpreted negatively’.
    To which a guy in the back waved his hand dismissively and said: ‘Yeah, yeah.’

  8. mailliw says

    @4 Allison

    I recall from my linguistic studies people unconsciously change the way they speak according to who they are talking to. When talking to friends and family they will strengthen their dialect, when talking to people in a more formal situation they will move towards more “standard” speech. It’s called register in linguistics.

    This makes it difficult for people researching dialect who can’t just ask people how they say things, as the subjects will immediately switch to the register appropriate for speaking to an academic. Thus various sneaky methods have to be used to conceal the researcher’s true identity.

  9. Alain Van Hout says

    As a longterm reader here, I couldn’t help adding a link to this amazing speech made by Stephen Fry, about grammar pedants. His rhetorical and oratory skills never cease to amaze …

  10. John Morales says

    mailliw, heh.

    “… to who they are talking to.” → “… to who they talk.”

    (Basically what was noted @7: ending a sentence with a preposition)

  11. mailliw says

    @10 John Morales,

    Agreed, the second “to” is superfluous -- and presumably David Mitchell is going to shoot us both dead for “who” rather than “whom” (see @3).

  12. TGAP Dad says

    One of the oddities of the language I’ve noticed recently is the use of “goes” as a synonym for “says” or “said,” although I haven’t seen it in writings, only speech.
    As for grammar nazis, you may have seen this before, which will be much funnier if you’ve seen the beginning of Inglourious Basterds:

  13. says

    Anyone who complains about language evolving should only ever be allowed to read Beowulf in its original text.

    A recent thing for me has been getting used to “on accident” instead of “by accident”. It does make sense, considering you do things “on purpose” and not “by purpose”.

  14. billseymour says

    One idiom that I’ve heard only in Pittsburgh, PA is using a participle as the object of the verb, to need.

    An example for the current times: “My hands need washed.”

  15. mailliw says

    @4 Allison

    For instance, “correct English” is pretty much defined as English spoken the way the most privileged speak.

    “Correct English” for British English was originally a dialect of SE England. It has since been transformed into a class dialect in that people of privileged classes speak closer to “correct English” than people from working class background and tend to view people who speak in dialects other than “correct English” as ignorant.

    To take an example from the NE English Tyneside dialect Geordie the word “larn” means to teach as in the phrase “that’ll larn yer” -- that will teach you. Consequently people from the NE are sometimes dismissed as ignorant because they don’t know the difference between learn and teach. The word “larn” has similar roots to lehren in German and is the correct word in Geordie for teach.

  16. says

    billseymour @15
    I use it all the time, and I’m up in the PNW. “Cat needs out.” “Cat needs fed.” And yes, “My hands need washed” is a good example, too.
    mailliw @16
    Well… they do say that the best way to learn a skill is to teach it, so you might be on to something.

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