So, I’m on Facebook the other day, where all meaningful discussion happens, and I run across several friends discussing why so many people start sentences with the word “so.”
Amid the consternation and concern, someone linked to a Lexicon Valley podcast in which Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo discuss this very issue. Garfield claimed to have noticed this use of “so” only three or four years ago, but I’ve never known a time people didn’t start sentences with “so,” and I’m a little older than four.
There’s plenty of evidence that this construction goes back more than half a decade. For example, a Kids in the Hall sketch from 1990 features the character Gavin, played by Bruce McCulloch, declaring, “So I suppose you want me to paint your chair.”
The Lexicon Valley podcast brings in experts who present the interesting but probably specious idea that starting a sentence with “so” has its origins among Bay-area techies, but my experience would suggest it’s just a regional way of speaking that spread, as colloquialisms tend to do.
While it may seem like beginning a sentence with “so” is nonsensical, that’s not the way it works in real life. Starting with “so” is almost deferential, a way of verbally reaching out to others, including them in our thoughts by implied connection. “So” is mostly used as a conjunction, a synonym for “thus.” If we started a sentence with “thus,” aside from sounding a bit old-fashioned, it would imply a meaning already understood by the context of the conversation—and thus it is with “so.”
So—or rather thus—when you hear “so” being used to start a sentence, take it in good faith: the speaker wants you to know that you, too, are part of the verbal gang.