Thursday, January 14, 2010

Annals of peevology: The meaningless "so"

Josephine Turck Baker's turn-of-the-century periodical, Correct English -- subtitled A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Proper Use of English -- featured regular "conversations" in which "Mrs. B" instructed various (strangely docile) friends, acquaintances, and children in improving their speech. In the issue for January 1, 1900, poor Mrs. A. played the role of pupil:


Mrs. A. -- I am so pleased to find you at home. I feared you might be away as it is such a beautiful day. I want to ask you some questions in regard to the article on Words and Their Uses, which appeared in the last issue of Correct English.

Mrs. B. -- I am very glad you came to-day. You will always find me at home on Wednesday as I reserve that day for my friends. I notice that you say, "I am so pleased to find you at home." Did it ever occur to you that so does not express any meaning in that connection?

Mrs. A. -- I never thought anything about it. Is "I am so pleased" an incorrect expression?

Mrs. B. -- Yes; because it is a meaningless one. It is a colloquialism, and, in consequence, is permissible only in familiar conversation. I object to it because it is an incorrect use of so. Of course when one says, "I am so pleased," or "I am so delighted," or "I am so disappointed," one means I am extremely pleased, delighted, or disappointed, as the case may be. But that is a perversion of the use of so. It is better to substitute "very much," or "extremely."

Mrs. A. -- Is it incorrect to use "so" with an adjective, as, for example, "You are so kind," "We are so happy," "It is so nice of you to come?"

Mrs. B. -- All those expressions are colloquialisms; so being used in each case to mean extremely, or very. As I said before, strictly speaking, these are perversions of the use of so. As a rule so should be used only when the degree is specified, implied or understood. This requires a subsequent or explanatory statement, or the degree may be indicated by previous statements or by the circumstances of the case. Thus, we correctly say, "I was so delighted with the work that I paid the bill without any question as to its correctness," or we may say, "She sang so beautifully that every one was delighted with her voice."

Mrs. A. -- To say, "I am so delighted" does sound senseless and if it is only sanctioned in familiar conversation, I think I shall avoid it altogether.


Vireya said...

I'm so amused to read this.

Stan said...

Whatever about avoiding so as an intensifier in very formal prose, it seems rather extreme to consider it a perversion. Especially on a Wednesday.

Roger said...

"So" statements do work, however, when followed by at "that" which serves as a consequence. As in, "I was so delighted to see you that I peed a little."

The Ridger, FCD said...

Mrs. A: ... the more so as I am not now in any way delighted to find you at home!

Anonymous said...

Well, Mrs B sounds a complete pill, but she did have a point; so actually means sort of "like this" or "suchlike", so that when it is used in the colloquial way that Mrs A used it, the comparison has been dropped, which indeed makes it meaningless!

Vance Maverick said...

And she (or whoever wrote this) comes so close to a satisfying explanation, too:

As a rule so should be used only when the degree is specified, implied or understood.

The usage she deplores is precisely one in which the degree is implied or understood rather than stated. "You are so kind." How kind? A lot.

&\Oslash; said...

I suppose there was a time long ago when "very" was just coming to be used to mean "extremely" -- that up to that point it had meant something more like "really" or "truly". If Mrs B had been there, she could have tried to put a stop that perversion, too.

MelissaJane said...

This is marvelously obnoxious. I do so hope you'll continue to share the adventures of Mrs. A and Mrs. B.

Gabadabingo said...

I suppose my torrid love affair with that word will now come to an end. So it goes.

Vicki said...

I am so happy to realize that English changes from year to year and colloquialisms become standard. And so, we leave Mrs. B at the turn of the previous century and move on.

Anonymous said...

No, Mrs. B kept it up till 1940. That's why we say "aren't I" instead of "ain't I" ("I are not" instead of "I am not").

Unknown said...

I suppose Mrs. B was trying to keep these simple by remarking upon only one word at a time, but I find it curious that she picks on so, when such was used similarly.

As mentioned, the degree meant by so is unstated but still exists. Usually, so delighted that I'm telling you so, but also, likely, so delighted that I'll forgive you for correcting my grammar incessantly.

Personally, my final line to Mrs. B would have been something like this: "If speaking colloquially is something you object to, and is only permitted in familiar conversation, then I shall bid you good day and find someone with whom I can have a familiar conversation."