Lately I’ve noticed that a great many commentators on television and radio feel obliged to begin every answer to every question with the word “so.” For example, the answer to “What did President Trump mean by his latest tweet?” might be “So, no one knows what is going on in the mind of Donald Trump, but….” The problem with this usage is that it is both unnecessary and incorrect.
There are many correct uses of the word “so.”
“So” can be used as an intensifier with an adjective to emphasize the adjective, as in: “It’s so hot today.”
It can be used to imply summation of a previous argument prior to changing the subject, as in: “So, now that we’ve gone through the instructions for installing a new outlet, let’s review the safety considerations.”
It can be used to imply causation, as in: “The store was out of milk today, so we had to go without.” (We had to go without milk because the store was out of it.)
Finally, the word “so” can be used to signal that the result of an argument is about to be declared, as in: “So, in conclusion, the only sensible option in this case is to call a contractor for help, since we’ve tried everything else.”
However, using “so” all by itself at the beginning of a reply to a question implies none of these things. Rather, it implies that the respondent understands and is prepared to answer the question, which is not one of the approved usages of the word.
To my older ears, beginning every answer with the word “so” sounds juvenile, much like the misuse of the word “like” by my generation. It means nothing in the context used, and can be omitted without any harm to the speaker’s meaning.
Not surprisingly, the biggest offenders in the misuse of the word “so” are young reporters, followed by older reporters who are trying to sound young by using the latest slangy usage. Misuse is one thing, but overuse is another, and we have long since reached that threshold. Listen to NPR on any given day and you’ll see what I mean.
Slangy usage is acceptable when the speaker is not speaking in a professional capacity, but when the speaker is a journalist acting in the role of expert commentator, bad usage only undercuts his or her credibility as an expert. In short, it’s right up there with making your voice go up at the end of every phrase as a signifier of youth (and inexperience).
So, in conclusion, I would like to address journalists directly and ask that you ditch the word “so” in the context described above. You will sound older and more professional if you do, and people like me who find this verbal mannerism annoying will not be distracted from your otherwise knowledgeable responses.