Science Questions

Why do all scientists say so?

Sat, 25th Jul 2015

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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. So what?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.


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I think it's a way to buy some time to think when preparing to speak, but sound smarter than starting off with, "Um."

Interviewer: *Question*

Interviewee: Yes, well. Okay so, *Answer* (sounds smart)

Interviewer: *Question*

Interviewee: Umm, err, ahh, *Answer* (doesn't sound smart) chiralSPO, Wed, 10th Jun 2015

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?"

I suspect it started off with scientists who were not native English speakers and who heard replies starting with the word "so" where it was used more appropriately, but they misunderstood its role and took it to be a standard way of introducing a reply. From there it would have spread to native English speakers and thereby reinforced this usage. Once established in this way, it's very hard to get rid of it - we've seen a similar virus get going in recent times with "the thing is is..." which originally came from someone misapplying part of a phrase structure from "what it is is", and I've even heard it turn up as "the thing was is" (Jeremy Clarkson).

That's just my theory though - there may be sufficient documentation on the origin of this plague of inappropriate sewing to pin it down to some other mechanism. It may be something that came from another language where the tradition is longer established. David Cooper, Wed, 10th Jun 2015

So I really hate the habit people have of saying "The HIV virus" and "The TSB Bank" etc...

So annoying.

So there... chris, Wed, 10th Jun 2015

This is totally new to me. I've never heard of this before. PmbPhy, Thu, 11th Jun 2015

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