Is Starting a Sentence With 'So' Condescending?

Syelle Graves explains why sometimes it’s OK to start a sentence with so and why other times it’s annoying.

Syelle Graves, Writing for
Episode #456

What Type Of So Peeves People?

As we have seen, when people start a sentence with so, it might be interpreted as authoritative to some listeners. This is also true when people reply to a question by starting with so. However, that type actually serves a very specific purpose, which changes a bit with the question type. For example, a yes-no question is one that gets a yes or a no as an answer, like “Are you okay”? A wh-question, on the other hand—a question that uses an interrogative pronoun like what, why, when, etc.—requires something more than just a yes or a no. For example: “What did you eat?” “Steak.” Or, “Where did you go?” “To Martinique.”

A speaker may unconsciously start the answer to a question with so when he or she has a “maybe” answer to a yes-no question, like this:

(9)   Jack: Do your classes meet on Saturdays?

Jill: So, the French class meets on Monday and Wednesday, but the writing class meets on Saturdays, yes.

Or, people may start with so when they have a complicated answer to a wh-question, like this:

(9)   Jill: What did you eat?

Jack: So, at first I ordered the steak, but I sent it back because it wasn’t good, and I wound up having the salmon.

When you answer a question by starting with so, the type of question influences what you mean.

These types of examples are commonly heard in the speech of many English speakers, indicating that discourse-marker so may be gaining in popularity over its alternatives like well or oh, may express greater nuance, and may continue to gain acceptance over time.

What is important is that speakers who use this construction are rarely being off-putting on purpose, and not everyone experiences it negatively. Speech coach Denise Graveline, for example, blogs that this so can be used to express empathy with the listener, and to indicate that whatever is coming next, it is relevant to the asker’s question. A dictionary.com language blogger concurs that using so in this way serves to engage the listener. Plus, sometimes, people start with so merely to gain some thinking time, or to show hesitation, a bit like using um or uh, which linguists call “fillers.” It may be better to listen to the speaker’s tone, or notice people’s facial expression and other non-linguistic signals, before you decide whether they mean to be condescending.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a master’s degree in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). You can find her at syellegraves.com.

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