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It’s hard to imagine that a two-letter word can cause quite so much anger.
But its use has been described as a ‘linguistic epidemic’ and such has been the recent level of anger from listeners of an influential radio news programme about it that the issue this week reached the leader page of The Times.
We are, of course, talking about the use of the word ‘so’ at the start of responses in media interviews.
This is not a new issue, but listener frustration appears to have reached something of a recent fever pitch.
The Radio 4 programme Feedback – a forum for comments, criticism and praise for the BBC’s output – has featured the ‘so’ epidemic in two consecutive episodes, with listeners venting their anger in particular at its use on the Today programme.
Robert from Wakefield said: “I have been increasingly irritated over the last couple of years by the increasing use of the word ‘so’ when prefacing a sentence.” Kay from Belfast added: “I don’t think ‘so’ is an appropriate word with which to begin a sentence.”
And Fergus, from Glasgow, went as far as to say: “Every time I hear it, the hair on my neck rises and my teeth bare in a grimace.”
This led The Times to report on the issue under the headline ‘So… Radio 4 listeners start an angry conversation about words’ and highlight that presenter John Humphrys has previously said the word has 'invaded everyday speech like some noxious weed in an untended garden'.
While I’m not convinced hearing the word ‘so’ should invoke quite the physical reaction poor old Fergus reports to suffer, or the fury of Mr Hurmphrys, there is little doubt the overuse of this two-letter word can be a huge distraction when used excessively in media interviews and it is something we often highlight during our media training courses.
An interview that stood out for me for this very reason came when Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick appeared on the Today Programme back in April shortly after taking up the role.
As if trying to create some kind of record, she managed to start no less than seven responses with ‘so’.
Not only did it ensure the interview sounded unnatural and over rehearsed, but it also completely distracted from what were otherwise sensible and detailed answers.
Oh dear, Cressida Dick has caught the ‘begin every answer with “so”’ disease. #r4today— Annette Hardy (@Annette1Hardy) April 18, 2017
Hmm. Cressida Dick has annoying habit of beginning every sentence with "So..." Detracts from otherwise sensible thoughts #r4today— Mark Gregory (@Gregom10) April 18, 2017
So, don't start sentences with 'so' unless you want to sound like a Muppet. #r4today— Jacka Garth (@SocialBeastie) April 18, 2017
It looks even worse in print as Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, proved in an infamous interview with the New York Times, where he managed to use ‘so’ to start four sentences in just one response.
But why do spokespeople appear to like using ‘so’ in media interviews.
Well, there are two main ways it is used. The first is when a spokesperson feels they are about to say something particularly important or detailed – almost like saying ‘okay -here goes’. They are trying to suggest to the listener that they need to pay particularly close attention now. Apart from sounding artificial, it is all too often not backed up with a particularly complex or notable explanation.
Its other main use is as a filler word or verbal crutch while the spokesperson tries to gather their thoughts – a sort of next generation ‘erm’ or ‘um’. Here, as well as being distracting, it can also demonstrate discomfort with the subject matter and line of questioning.
And actually, as we tell delegates on our media training courses, there are better ways of giving yourself that split second of thinking time while you plan your answer – including a brief moment of silence.
It’s not that we insist on language being precise in media interviews – the occasional ‘er’ or ‘um’ will largely go unnoticed – we just don’t want the audience to become distracted from the message spokespeople want to get across or, even worse, become completely alienated.
There's a woman on @BBCNews right now starting every sentence with the word "so".SO Ive switched off from what she's saying & switched over— B A Wise (@BritsAbroadWISE) October 27, 2017
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