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I noticed that most of the times when the conjunction "so" is used at the beginning of a sentence, it is followed by a comma:

So, this gets published but the fact that it is inaccurate gets moderated out.

Occasionally, I find sentences with no comma after "so":

So he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath.

I am guessing that whether to put comma or not after the "so" conjunction is related to the context and emphasis rather than to the sentence structure, but I am unable to pinpoint it out.

So when do we need to put comma after "so"? (← Do I need a comma after the "so" here?)

P.S.: I know there is another usage of "so" as an adjective or an adverb, in which case no comma is necessary, for example: "So big is the caravan that it cannot fit into the garage."

P.S.: I did skim through the list of questions with [comma] tag, and found no question on this conjunction yet.

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So, now that you've asked this question, how can we answer it? "So," suggests a substantial turning point in the discourse, for example between describing a situation and reacting to change it. See Fattie's answer for good examples where the turning point is substantial because of the outrageousness of the situation. Less outrageous examples still have a substantial turning point:

As my students, you have worked hard and studied carefully. So, today it's time to party!

So now let me describe "So" without a comma. "So" suggests logical continuity, for example between describing a situation and its usual result. When possible, it would often be better to combine a "So" sentence with the preceding sentence.

As my students, you have worked hard and studied carefully. So I know you will pass the examination.

As my students, you have worked hard and studied carefully, so I know you will pass the examination.

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  • Thank you for the answer. I think this answer explains the distinction between "So," and "So" best without basing it on the spoken language. So I am going to accept this answer within a few hours, unless someone posts a better answer or discredits this answer before that. – Lukman Jun 19 '11 at 13:27
  • @Lukman this is a great answer! – Fattie Jun 19 '11 at 19:13
  • "Logical continuity" is present in both of your examples, so no comma should be present. – Mark Raishbrook Jan 16 '17 at 22:29
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If you are emulating a style of casual speech, as the others have explained, you could use a comma after so, especially if you hear a significant pause. Such a pause may be caused by indignation, hesitation, etc.

So, what do want to play with next?

Traditional style, on the other hand, forbids it. Whether or not a pause is heard doesn't matter. There is no one-on-one relation between pauses and commas: sometimes a pause is indicated by a comma, sometimes it isn't. Syntax plays a major part too.

Roman emperors were often adopted by their predecessors. So Augustus adopted Tiberius, and Trajan is said to have named Hadrian his successor shortly before his death.

Note that the use of so to denote consequence without either and ("and so...") or that ("so that...") is still less formal than and so or so that. In the above example, it denotes similarity, not consequence.

If so is followed by a parenthetical phrase, a comma naturally follows in either style (though some authors find this comma burdensome and leave it out).

And so, ignoring the senate's command, Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

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For a native English speaker, in current particularly USA usage, the comma can imply that the phrase which is about to follow is "really outrageous."

For example, there are a number of idioms in English such as "So, let me get this straight..."

"So, let me get this straight, you're going to charge me to service the car AND charge for the engine oil?"

To get a feel for it, similar expressions are things like "Get out of here, you scratched my new car?" or "Are you kidding, you stole my husband AND scratched my new car?" or "You said WHAT? You screwed the mechanic AND he charged me for the oil change?"

(Another funny one is "Let's recap." "So! Let's recap: you slept with the mechanic, he scratched my car, and then you paid him for the lube job anyway??!")

Do you see what I mean? It's something of a pattern in English: A - set up outrageous event, B - a brief pause for effect. C - describe the outrageous event.

You can see that "So, " fits with this pattern.

I'm not saying this is the only usage, but it's a common vibration.

Your example is exactly this sense. "So, let me get this straight: it gets published, but the editing gets moderated?!"

Hope it helps!

Regarding "So with no comma" to me it always sounds rather biblical / archaic. (The greatest example being "So let it be.")

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  • Thanks for the answer, but being a non-native speaker I afraid I can't tell whether something is really outrageous or not, in order to decide to put a comma after "so" or not. For example, the sentence "So, are you sure you still want to go there?" does not really sound outrageous to me but there is still a comma after "so". How outrageous is really outrageous? – Lukman Jun 19 '11 at 13:33
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    @Lukman: I think this is slightly mischaracterizing the situation. In the "So, let me get this straight, you're .." example, there is a 'parenthetical' remark inserted into the sentence after 'So' that is marked by a balanced pair of commas. The sentence could omit the parenthetical interruption and still be correct: 'So you're going to charge...'. This is somewhat different from what you're asking about. It could also be "So (palpable pause), you're going...". – Jonathan Leffler Jun 19 '11 at 17:09
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    "So let it be" can be read two ways: "Therefore let it be" (using "so" as conjunction for logical continuity) or "Let it be this way" (using "so" as adverb referring to a certain manner, which may sound archaic). – krubo Jun 19 '11 at 18:34
  • @krubo, "So let it be" means "Amen"- they mean the same thing. (That's why the final Beatles album is so-called.) I don't think it means much to try to ferret out the exact grammar, since, the phrase is only used in one mechanical way, "to close a reading". – Fattie Jun 19 '11 at 19:11
  • From Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (Rameses speaking): "The city that he builds shall bear my name, the woman that he loves shall bear my child. So let it be written, so it shall be done." – MT_Head Jun 19 '11 at 19:23
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If you want the reader to mentally "pause" after the 'so', then I'd suggest putting a comma, and otherwise not. It doesn't matter terribly much either way.

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I think the "so" with a comma signals spoken language or telling a story in a way that emulates spoken language. "So, he went to Ishmael" would look out of place in the Bible, but would be fine in a children's book.

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The simplest rule-of-thumb, one that will rarely lead you wrong, is always to avoid comma after "So" at the start of a sentence, immediately after a semicolon, or immediately after a comma. That applies regardless of what "so" means there or what grammatical term you think would describe it.

The more nuanced answer follows:

Polished writers who grew up before approximately the late 1990s, reading literature written in the 1800s and 1900s, rarely place a comma after "So" in the sense of therefore. It looks and sounds as out of place to us as a comma after "But" — which has also become all too common in the last 20 years.

The de facto authority for the vast majority of Freshman Comp classes, The Hodges Harbrace Handbook, added an explicit rule for this reason, Rule 13b: Avoid comma after coordinating conjunctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. (I've tweaked the order to correspond to the now more common acronym FANBOYS. Google FANBOYS comma for more perspectives.) A comma usually goes before those conjunctions, almost never after.

The only authority I've seen that supports So-comma is The Elements of Style, published 1918, which does not comment, but uses So-comma in 2 on-point instances and one off-point instance. The other 9 authorities I examined overwhelmingly (but not entirely) avoid placing comma after "so" when it means therefore at the start of a sentence or independent clause.

A few days ago, I combed through The Prince of Tides, War and Remembrance, Sophie's Choice, Light in August, Portnoy's Complaint, The Bluest Eye, Alias Grace, The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Atonement — somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million words. In all of that text, professionally edited and published by major houses, there were only 9 instances of So-comma in the sense of therefore, where it did not introduce a subordinate/parenthetical clause or phrase. In fact, even when introducing a comma-parenthetical, those writers (or editors) usually deleted the first of the two commas that would delimit it if it appeared later in the sentence. (@Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica states and illustrates that well in an earlier answer.)

Compared to those 9 instances of So-comma, there were (conservatively counted) 871 instances of So-without-comma in the usual sense of Therefore, plus hundreds of others in senses like Thus and To such an extent.

Of those 871 instances, 465 were at the beginning of a sentence; 51 immediately followed a semicolon; and 355 immediately followed a comma.

Link to Full Tabulation (PDF)

Although in my experience, So-comma was sometimes seen earlier than 2000 in under-edited business writing, it is mostly a child of the 2000s. The textual analysis overwhelmingly supports my lifelong impression that professional editors and writers throughout the 1900s nearly always avoided comma after so-as-therefore. That's why it sounds and looks strange to those of us of a certain age and breadth of reading.

That said, there are certain occasions when So-comma is needed for emphasis or to avoid ambiguity. ("So, long before the deadline, we began wrapping up the project" — to avoid "So long" or "So long before.")

But in Grammatically Correct, author Anne Stilman points out regarding emphasis that when speaking, we often pause or change intonation in places we don't punctuate with a comma. To create emphasis, Stilman recommends instead choosing one of italics, ellipsis or a dash to convey a pause or stress. I recommend the same when I edit fiction, where such emphasis normally occurs inside dialogue. The comma looks too accidental and unpolished.

So again, the best simple rule-of-thumb is to avoid comma-after-so (indeed comma after any FANBOYS) at the beginning of a sentence, immediately following a semicolon, or immediately following a comma. That will nearly always align you with great writers and editors.

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  • In @Laurel's mostly commendable answer above, the "turning point" is better indicated by Stilman's italics, ellipsis, or dash. Much casual writing now uses comma that way, creating confusion about commas after FANBOYS. But long-standing editorial practice in polished writing and Hodges Harbrace rule 13b both seem very clear about avoiding comma after "So" at the beginning of a sentence, after a semicolon, or after a comma. (This lexicographic description is easier for the non-grammatically inclined, yet avoids confusion about cases like "We had not done so, and it came back to bite us.") – Timberline Jun 26 at 22:48

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