So, let’s talk about conjunctions

When did a two-letter word become so loaded? Probably around the time digital media made it OK to keep it informal -- in writing and face to face. Image from www.stereogum.com.

When did a two-letter word become so loaded? Probably around the time digital media made it OK to communicate  overly informally — in writing and face to face. Image from http://www.stereogum.com.

I did a mental happy dance when I read the Fast Company article How a Popular Two-Letter Word Is Undermining Your Credibility. When I left the stodgy journalism world and joined the fast-paced, exciting world of big business, I noticed a distinct change in how people talk. They weigh their words (too) carefully, and they often start sentences with “so.” Particularly if they’re in a position of authority.

The “so” tic drives me crazy. It tells me two things:

* That person is not going to answer my question directly.
* That person has not given a lot of thought to the subject of my question.

I’ve looked for an academic explanation for this phenomenon, which is probably best described in rhetorical terms as syndeton (as opposed to asyndeton or polysyndeton). However, my basic grad-school Rhetoric 101 takeaway was that tropes and schemes are intended to reinforce the speaker’s message. We rarely explored how tropes and schemes could dilute it.

For that brand of analysis, it’s better to move away from esoterica and take a look at the more pragmatic study of grammar. For generations, writers have been discouraged from using conjunctions to start sentences. Only in the past generation or so has the practice become more accepted in writing — and even now, appropriateness is still subjective, based on medium and audience.

Smart writers and editors are exploring the issue closely. This grammar resource sums up the matter better than I ever could:

“A sentence beginning with and or but will tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function. Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind: (1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate, use it.”

The topic at hand here is spoken, not written, communication, but the principle is the same. Starting a sentence with “so” is a ham-handed attempt to connect unrelated ideas. It draws attention to the speaker and not the idea.

In an ordinary setting, this misstep would not be terribly consequential (though for the record, I’ve never heard anyone use “so” in this way in casual conversation). But in a professional setting, where effective communication is just as important as ideas themselves, it’s distracting and amateurish.

This “so” issue emphasizes the gap between business and communication skill sets. As I strive to better understand what my corporate America colleagues do (and how my expertise fits into that picture) I can only hope that some of them are coming to realize the value of clear, elegant written and spoken communication.

 

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