So it seems that some people take issue with the widespread usage of the word “so” to begin sentences. “If you speak English for work or pleasure, there is a fair chance that you’ve done it, too.” wrote Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times last year. “No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight.”
This morning BBC Radio 4’s Today programme featured a mini rant on the subject. (Audio clip might be accessible in the UK-only, apologies if so.) John Rentoul, author of The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliché explained why promoting this two-letter word to the beginning of a sentence has become a plague. As he said:
It’s the first on a three-part scale of offences against the English language, because you can start with “So”, then “And so”, and the worst of all is “And so it begins”.
According to Rentoul, this probably originates from posting comments on the Internet, which provides a handy device for grabbing other people’s attention instantly. Rentoul’s assertion might not be too far off the mark, as Giridharadas wrote in his New York Times article Silicon Valley might be the source of this plague:
The journalist Michael Lewis picked it up when researching his 1999 book ”The New New Thing”: ”When a computer programmer answers a question,” he wrote, ”he often begins with the word ‘so.”’ Microsoft employees have long argued that the ”so” boom began with them.
So, why bother mentioning this on Nobel Prize Watch? Well, in the literary world perhaps the best-known and most subversive use of “so” at the beginning of a sentence is by the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. His translation of the Anglo Saxon epic poem Beowulf doesn’t employ the word “so” to begin any old sentence, he uses the word to begin the first sentence of the first verse.
Previous translations of the original Old English sentence “Hwæt. We Gardena in gear-dagum”, adhered to the poem’s complex style, resulting in somewhat archaic-looking sentences such as “What ho! We’ve heard the glory / of Spear-Danes, clansmen-kings.” In Heaney’s hands, the translation reads like a poem in its own right, and his first sentence becomes: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by.”
As Heaney himself explained, he wanted his version of Beowulf to sound like it could be spoken by descendants of the characters. He said:
I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon…
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.
Or as the writer, editor and publisher Eric McMillan says, the first line of Heaney’s translation is the equivalent of beginning an anecdote like “So. A guy walks into a bar…”.