Sam Brown asked:
Many times on radio and television, scientists, doctors, engineers etc are asked questions about what they do or how a particularly thing they are talking about works. Very often (lately - in the last ten years or so) they will begin their answer almost always with the word "So ..." What is it that makes this such a common thing around the English speaking world?
Ginny Smith tried not to say 'so' whilst answering this question!
Ginny - Well, it's something I've noticed myself doing as well. There are lots of different reasons that people might say 'so' at the beginning of a sentence. Probably the simplest is, itís an alternative to 'umm' that sounds a bit more like you know what you're talking about. It gives you a bit of time to kind of think of what you're going to say next but to sound like you know which direction you're going in. So, thatís the kind of a simple answer. There are some more complex ones. So Ė there we go, I just did it. The way we use 'so' is to link two ideas together and normally therefore, the 'so' goes in the middle of a sentence. "I was hungry, so I ate some food." If you put the 'so' at the beginning of a sentence, it's suggesting that the idea you're going to say next is linked to something that's gone previously. So, one reason is that it might be the scientist trying to say, "I've listened to your question and I'm actually really concentrating on answering it. I'm trying to give you something thatís linked to what you asked me." So, it's actually a way of kind of showing that you're empathising with the questioner and trying to give them the answer that they want.
Chris - So, do you know what I'm finding really aggravating - I don't know if you've noticed this as well - is people 'reaching out' to me. I've got about 50 million emails - and actually, I don't mean this in a disrespectful way, but they're all coming from America and these people write to me and they tell me they're 'reaching out' to me with this, that, or the other; they want to ask me to buy, sell or do something. I always write back- flippantly, joking of course - saying, "You must have very long arms because I'm several thousand miles away across the Atlantic." And they just donít get the joke. They don't see that everyone is doing this, but itís sort of similar, isn't it? Itís trying to be empathic. It's trying to demonstrate a sort of openness and friendliness and it's actually coming across as a bit of nuisance.
Ginny - But it's also a habit. Humans pick up habits very quickly, very easily, and we like to fit in with our group. So, if other people in your group are doing something, you will automatically pick it up. And that's why once something starts being used, it often kind of spreads like wildfire. It's because we're tribal beings and we like to fit in.
I think it's a way to buy some time to think when preparing to speak, but sound smarter than starting off with, "Um."
So, we're really talking about a virus which has infected the scientific community. The big question is, who started it? Sometimes it is fully appropriate to start your answer with "so" because you might be beginning your answer with a clear summary of what was a bloated and confused question: "So, you want to know why things fall down rather than up?"
So I really hate the habit people have of saying "The HIV virus" and "The TSB Bank" etc...