So: It’s among the shortest words in English, and use of it abounds. So, when are we going to meet up? That movie was so good. I so much want to be there. He’s not feeling well, so he probably won’t go to the meeting.
The word has become a versatile agent for our language during the last couple of centuries. Yet as many of us know, sometimes familiarity can breed contempt. Once a word starts to appear anytime, anywhere, we begin to question its identity and perhaps its validity too.
We all may have heard instances when, similar to the word like, so has served as sentence filler. This casual use paves the way for so to seep into contexts where it doesn’t belong or may not be needed.
To get to the bottom of what the word really means and how we should approach it in formal writing today, let’s start with how Merriam-Webster online helps to define it:
- so (adv): in a manner stated or suggested; in the same way; to a great degree; without a doubt
- so (conj): for that reason, therefore; with the result that, in order that
- so (adj): agreeing with actual facts, true; marked by a desired order
- so (pron): such has been specified or suggested; also used in the phrase or so to indicate an estimate, approximation, or conjecture (It will cost about $500 or so.)
Using those definitions, let’s look at some sentence examples:
- so (adv): That outfit makes her look so grown up.
- so (conj): The event was longer than we expected, so we decided to leave early.
- so (adj): You might think the company is changing its policy, but that isn’t so.
- so (pron): If you have to return the item, do so in the next 30 days.
M-W further points out that while some college handbooks renounce so as an “intensive” for comparison (refer to the adverb example above), it still remains standard usage (e.g., Janice was so intelligent that her teachers didn’t know what level to place her in).
Another question concerns whether to use so or so that in clauses that communicate purpose (e.g., Sally stayed home [so or so that] I could go to the ball game). Both the Harbrace College Handbook and The Rinehart Guide to Grammar and Usage agree that so that provides a clearer sentence structure and a better tone for formal writing.
Uncertainty may also arise about how to link clauses including so as a conjunction, as in the following examples:
- Pete is the fastest runner; so he’ll run the last leg of the 400-meter relay.
- Pete is the fastest runner, so he’ll run the last leg of the 400-meter relay.
- Pete is the fastest runner, and so he’ll run the last leg of the 400-meter relay.
Some grammar sources cite the first example above containing the two clauses separated by a semicolon as acceptable; GrammarBook views this style as outdated. Others prefer the second usage, two clauses separated by a comma and so as a conjunction; we agree. A majority would forgo the use of and so with a comma as an unnecessary doubling of conjunctions.
On a similar note, grammar sources concur that writers should not rely on so as an adverb to join ideas that would be better connected with a subordinate clause (one that cannot stand alone in a sentence). Conjoining ideas with so should mainly give them equal emphasis.
Awkwardly reliant on so: The speakers were friendly, so they got along with everyone, and they were well received.
Better: Because the speakers were friendly, they got along with everyone and were well received.
Equal emphasis with so as an adverb for conjunction: The job required too much travel, so I turned it down.
Putting these thoughts and guidelines into practice should help us reign in runaway so’s in formal writing, so let’s commit to doing so, shall we?
The following sentences include the main parts of speech for so defined in this article. Identify whether each use of so is an adverb, a conjunction, an adjective, or a pronoun.
1) The item was too expensive, so we didn’t buy it. [adv / conj / adj / pron]
2) To do so would be to risk alienating our allies in the cause. [adv / conj / adj / pron]
3) You lost the ring down the drain? Tell me it isn’t so! [adv / conj / adj / pron]
4) He is so quick that not even our fastest defender can keep up with him. [adv / conj / adj / pron]
Pop Quiz Answers
1) The item was too expensive, so we didn’t buy it. [conj]
2) To do so would be to risk alienating our allies in the cause. [pron]
3) You lost the ring down the drain? Tell me it isn’t so! [adj]
4) He is so quick that not even our fastest defender can keep up with him. [adv]