Saturday, February 27, 2016

So where was I?

I was still five, on my first day of school, when one of the St. Michael’s nuns inadvertently gave my sense of self-worth, or whatever it was called in the ’60s, a good, hearty spin. Nervous as I was, I could at least take comfort that my new classmates hadn’t been here before either, since the school had no kindergarten. Then Sister spoke to a boy standing among us in the schoolyard. “Tom, show the others how to line up in the auditorium…like you did last year.”

Like he did last year?

My parents, I was distraught to conclude, should not have sent me last year to kindergarten at the nearby public school. I was supposed to have been here at St. Michael’s, lining up again and again in the auditorium like Tom. On Day One of eight years at this school, I was already in the dark.

It’s because of this early memory—that feeling of being denied prior knowledge—that today I feel unsettled to hear a certain word at the beginning of a sentence. The word is “So.”

Of course, starting a sentence with “So” could make perfect sense, such as when two friends meet after some time apart: “So what’s up with you these days?”

I also find it useful in my shrugging response to a co-worker’s question of why I have mounted someone onto a meat hook I just happened to find in the copier room: “So he can’t get down.”

Otherwise, it has grown into the 21st century’s de rigueur verbal tic, what many of us innocently say instead of “Ummmm” or “Wellll….”

As with those fillers, hearing an occasional “so” at the beginning of a sentence is no big deal. But in rabid use, when nothing prior has occurred to justify the use of the word, it can be exasperating. Take when I first noticed its practice, during a brief interview with a young guy at the iRobot booth of one recent Consumer Electronics Show. He was demonstrating a robotic vacuum that could be used as a hands-free wet mop for bare floors.

“Is the product available now?” I asked.

“So you can buy it starting today.”

“Is $600 its price in stores?”

“So it will cost $600.”

“Does that price include any of the cleaning solution?”

“So you get a bottle with the product.”

My first impulse, always my most genuine, was to grab him by the lapel and smack his face back and forth a few times. “What’s the word?” I’d demand.


Smack smack smack. “What’s the word?” Watching gangster movies, you see, costs far less than journalism-school tuition—and is much more rewarding.


For some reason, they didn’t send me back to CES this year.

By this point, I’m convinced that many people inappropriately start sentences that way for the sheer pleasure of it, a way of throwing others off and giving the false impression that they, too, were lining up in the St. Michael’s auditorium while the rest of us were wetting their pants in kindergarten. And for those people, it’s time for a little quid pro quo, to quote a movie character who would never unjustifiably start a sentence with “So,” making him okay in my book.

I propose, in fact, that everyone who’s incensed by this practice join with me in throwing these villains similarly off guard. Let’s say your waiter, postal clerk or returns-counter staffer greets you with words preceded by an incongruous “so”—something along the lines of “So I’m Quincy, and I’m your server.”

• “Consequently, I’ll have the tripe parmegian.”

• “Therefore, I would like to mail this anthrax Priority Mail with Return Receipt.”

• “On the other hand, I have to return this cobra.”

I myself have resolved this moment never to begin a sentence in an unsettling way, and there’s one way to break this habit. Are you with me? I’ll tell you how…um, as soon as I ask Tom.