Say It Isn’t “So”

Seed Magazine is running a strange article about the word “so.”  Instead of having a “writer” or “reporter,” this story has an “analyst” whose name is Michael Erard.  Here is what our analyst says about the word “so”:

The language of science, with its specialized vocabulary and clipped rhythm, has a distinctive architecture.

The functional elegance of this rarefied speak is uniquely captured in one of its most inconspicuous words: “so.” This isn’t “so” the intensifier (“so expensive”); it’s not the “so” that joins two clauses. This is the “so” that introduces a sentence, as in “So as we can see, modified Newtonian dynamics cannot account for the rotation of any of the three observed galaxies.”

This “so” is key to a basic unit of scientific talk: the explanation.

I don’t know about you, but in my freshman writing course I was taught — by an elegant and disciplined writer — that “so” is a useless, throwaway word.  It was one of those words that, if used in an assignment or essay, would earn you an automatic “F” (another such word was “very”).  The “F” probably stood for fluff or filler.

I took another five or six writing courses as an undergraduate, and a few more as a graduate student, and was always taught — properly so, that beginning a sentence with “so” is superfluous and sloppy.

“So” is neither a causal nor explanatory word.  It is useless and explains nothing.  In each example given by Erard the analyst, you could remove the word “so” from the beginning of the sentence and achieve the same causal/explanatory result: it is the sentence structure that makes it so.

If this is a choice word for “the language of science, with its specialized vocabulary and clipped rhythm,” I guess I will never be a science writer (notice how I did not begin this sentence with a superfluous “so”).  If you need to explain something in causal terms, you either use “because” or nothing at all — you structure the sentence so that the conclusion follows from the premise (see preceding parenthetical).

So what I want to say is that Erard’s story is so wrong and his grammar instruction is so bad.  Welcome to the Valley!

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