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.
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.