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This also came up on either a BBC or CBC science program, but not as a linguistically-oriented discussion.

Over the last two or three years I've noticed a lot more people starting a sentence with "so": "so when we take the ...", "so I have this ...", "so the basic idea ..." and (uh) so on.

What is "so" when a sentence begins with it? When did it start? Is it just a "pause" word (and is there a word for that)? Is it grammatically correct? Am I the only one that finds it annoying?

Edit: Much of its usage in scientific discussions is as a "therefore".

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    possible duplicate of What makes "like" and "so" popular? – Callithumpian Sep 26 '11 at 2:48
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    @Callithumpian: That's more about like as a hedge, not discourse markers. I'm a bit disappointed it doesn't even cover like as a quotative. – Jon Purdy Sep 26 '11 at 3:16
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    So, Wikipedia notes this dates back to the 1380s. – gerrit May 11 '16 at 11:51
  • This usage has become noticeably more common in U.S. public radio news and interview programs over the past two or three years. It is especially noticeable in a back-and-forth colloquy between, say, an NPR newsreader at station headquarters and the on-the-scene reporter: Newsreader: What can you tell us about X? Reporter: So, blah blah blah. Newsreader: Does that represent a change from Y? Reporter: So, bib blib blib. Newsreader: What do you think the outcome of Z will be? Reporter: So, blub blub blub. It is almost a verbal tic for some reporters to preface every statement with "So." – Sven Yargs Jun 13 '18 at 7:04
  • @SvenYargs Not just NPR-it's everywhere :( – Dave Newton Jun 13 '18 at 9:05
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What is "so" when a sentence begins with it?

It's a discourse marker, like oh, well, now, and many others.

It can be used…

  • To inform the listener that something is relevant to their interest: “So, Sam was asking about you the other day…” suggests something in the air between them, like love, tension, or a bad smell.

  • To introduce a story, explanation, or change of topic: if I ask someone “What happened on your vacation?” and they begin with “So…”, I’m going to make some popcorn.

  • To relate a statement to the existing topic, a metaphorical extension of its “therefore” sense to “considering that…” or “in light of what we’ve been discussing…”.

  • As a generic discourse marker, to take a moment to gather one’s thoughts, just like the others above.

When did it start?

It’s hard to say. (I can’t find a satisfactory source.) Formal discourse markers, such as Beowulf’s hwæt mentioned in another answer, are well attested in written records. They particularly appear in texts of the sort meant to be performed—poems, epics, songs, plays, and so on—that is, not so much in tax records and epitaphs.

So in particular has been used in roughly this way, meaning “thus”/“therefore”, for hundreds of years, since early modern English. NPR claims that the specific use of so as a discourse marker for introducing an explanation rose to mainstream infamy from about the 1980s to the early 2000s, possibly influenced by the English of Silicon Valley during the tech boom.

Is it just a "pause" word…

No, but, so, it can definitely function that way too, so, yeah.

…(and is there a word for that)?

There is! That’s a filler word, such as “um”, “like”, “er”, “ah”, and all those other little interjections. “Just” is a bit belittling: filler words serve an important pragmatic role in conversation, namely, they signal that you’re thinking or pausing but still holding the floor.

As it happens, I rarely use those kinds of filler, and as a result, I’m often met with “What?” or interrupted, because I pause without an indication that I’m not done yet, so people tend to assume I am done. They either have trouble parsing my half-sentence as a full one, or mistakenly think it’s their turn. I’m not quite following the rules for discourse dynamics, and it trips us up.

Is it grammatically correct?

Yes. It’s used and understood by native speakers of many dialects now and I’d say it forms an everyday part of informal spoken standard English.

Am I the only one that finds it annoying?

Nope, in the late aughts to early teens (when this question was originally asked) there was a spike in grumbling about this usage as it reached mainstream saturation. As always, you’re free to get annoyed by any language change you like, or rather, dislike, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that “I don’t like it” is not the same thing as “It’s bad”.

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  • Discourse marker, that's what I was looking for--thanks. – Dave Newton Sep 26 '11 at 12:25
  • That said, it seems appropriate usage would be in replacement of "for example", not "because of that". – Wolfpack'08 Jun 27 '14 at 23:43
  • Perhaps you could enlarge upon this and make it an answer of the quality ELU has grown to expect. Sentence-initial so may be semantically bleached, but may of course have the sentence-connector sense 'Bearing in mind what's just been said' etc. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 2 at 10:26
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So is supposed to be used in something like, "The grass is tall, so it will be mowed." The use expanded to "The grass is tall. So, it will be mowed."

Now, so is commonly used at the beginning of a sentence to mean "as a result" as it was traditionally used, but also with the same meaning as "uh," as an initial attention-getter. For example, "So, do you want to go get some lunch?"

It is also used sometimes in a discussion to "hold the floor," or keep one's side of the conversation going by making some noise between sentences. This is particularly common in public interviews.

So is sometimes used in the beginning of a sentence to connect the sentence with the previous sentence or paragraph, as a discourse marker. It may imply that the content of the sentence is there because of the previous idea, or it may just be there to keep up the rhythmic flow of the text.

So, I find it annoying, too.

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    I find it annoying, and I do it all the time. I have to go through my own prose, removing it. – slim Jan 20 '12 at 15:11
  • All of xpda's examples are instances of the use of so as different kinds of discourse markers, not just the sentence-connector usage. Swan's classification of discourse markers was good, but Fraser's Pragmatic Markers isearch.avg.com/pages/abt/hnav/… is monumental. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 17 '12 at 0:20
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It's partly a regional usage: Seamus Heaney in the foreword to his translation of Beowulf says

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

(full text here; http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/beowulf/introbeowulf.htm)

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"We spent all of our money at the concert. So we couldn't go out for dinner."

This is an example of how "so" should not be used to begin a sentence. It results in a sentence fragment, and is incorrect. The same rule holds true for "because".

"So, which movie would you prefer to watch?"

This sentence is okay because it is being used as a discourse marker, as other answers here have sufficiently explained.

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  • If we can't start sentences with and, because, so, etc. I just wonder how much literary writing would have to be binned...[ahem] – Lambie Apr 2 at 21:38

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