There was a discussion about the word 'so' on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. The word annoys a lot of people, apparently, especially when interviewees use it to begin their answer to a question from an interviewer (listen to the short piece here for another week).
John Rentoul of The Independent, who has recently published The Banned List (about which I blogged recently) was a guest on the programme. He said that the word 'so' has become a plague in the printed media and on the radio, and thinks that it started with internet comments, with people writing 'so' to grab readers' attention. He also said that 'so' wasn't quite as bad as 'and so' or 'and so it begins'. He thinks that people use 'so' to try to draw listeners into membership of a private club, to allude to a previous conversation and to assume shared knowledge. Rentoul, himself, thinks that it is lazy to use the word.
John Humphrys, the Today anchor, said he thought it was used very randomly these days. So, what do I think? Well, (and 'well' is probably as bad as 'so') for one thing, I'm probably guilty of using 'so' unnecessarily, but, on the whole, I think that 'so' performs a useful function. If there is an interview going on on the radio and the interviewer asks a question - 'How many people are affected?', say, then if the interviewee launches straight in with the answer, 'Two thousand', the listener may not have been ready for their answer, or known when, exactly, they were going to answer the question, and so might miss the key information. Beginning the answer with 'so' does, at least, tell the listener that it's time to pay attention.
Here is the BBC interview on this topic, available for another week.