Thursday, March 22, 2012

So, what's with "So"?

That scientists are susceptible to fads is a well known phenomenon.  Fellow blogger ePatient Dave deBronkart mentioned this in a post some time ago:

[Thomas] Kuhn says science is, amazingly, a fashion industry, where if you don’t wear the right glasses or shoes, you’re scorned. (The irony, of course, is that the scientific community is supposed to be evidence-based, and Kuhn established forty years ago that it’s not.)

But what you might not realize is that scientists suffer from verbal fads as well as substantive ones. When I first arrived to work at Harvard Medical School in 1998, you could barely get through a meeting without someone talking about the need to "interdigitate" knowledge from one field with another.  Of course, that was anathema to a department-based research institution, especially where academic promotions were based on super-subspecialty reductionist science.  Nonetheless, people would always respond by saying how that "resonated" with them.  Then, they would leave the room, and nothing would change.

The current verbal fad among scientists is the use of the word "so" when starting a sentence. 

Here's an example from public radio, as presented by Morning Edition's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam:

So let me give you a little bit of background. So social scientists have known for a long time that when you ask people their views on policy questions, they are influenced by the identities that they share or don't share with political leaders.

These's "so's" are distinct from the one in the next sentence, which is used as a conjunction:

So if you're president shares your religion or your gender or race, you're much more likely to find the president's policies something that you can support. If you don't share the identity of your president, then you're much more likely to find yourself in opposition to the president.

But within a few seconds he goes right back to the fad version:

So I'm looking at a specific study that was just published in the American Journal of Political Science.

So that's an excellent question, Steve.

Listen to the program here and see if you agree:

(Click here if the audio file is not visible.)

But here's the troubling thing.  I think it while "so" often takes the place of "um" or "you know," it is unlike those two pause-makers.  It is sometimes used in a pretentious manner, to give the impression that the speaker is engaged in one last deep thought before giving his views of the topic at hand.  (I don't think Vedantam suffers from that, but I know many people who do.)

Next time you are at a scientific conference or meeting, keep your ears open for this little conceit.  Or better yet, don't, as it will drive you crazy after a few minutes.


Mark Graban said...

Starting sentences with "So" is a bad blogging habit of mine...

It's really good for speakers to listen to and/or watch recordings of yourself... it's brutally hard to do. But the ums, ers, verbal tics etc sure shine through. Or have a friend count how many of them you throw into a talk...

To the continuous improvement of our work!

e-Patient Dave said...

This vaguely reminds me of the observation last decade that "Dude" could be used as all 7 parts of speech. (It's an exaggeration but you know what I mean.)

Actually, way back in our college days, the nerdiest people I knew (and that's going some) would use "So" simply to mean "I'm about to say something." This was slightly less nerdy than the programmer version, which was to declare sentence type before speaking: "Question: ..." or "Statement!..." etc.

One guy I knew, packing for summer, handed a Selectric typewriter to a friend and said "Here: put this in an output buffer momentarily." And he meant it.

Anonymous said...

So guilty of using "So..." Not as bad as your example though! I believe I subconsciously use it as a transition and at times to replace "um". It is interesting how words like these show up in our speech and are often invisible to ourself.

Janice said...

So.....thank you for writing about something that has been driving me crazy lately. Every speaker I've heard, especially those just asked a question, starts the reply with, "So."