Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 9 News List

A movie about the word `so' would be called `The Intensifier'

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

I stole that from Christian Tot's review of a rock concert in The Washington Times: "Times change, and today's listeners wanna hear Jet, the Strokes and other, oh, so 2004 music."

The hot adverb, used there to emphasize timeliness, is more often used to signify the out-of-date. On Fox TV, Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host, said of the talk about Bill Clinton's autobiography, "The Monica Lewinsky stuff now really seems so last century."

The popularization of this usage may have begun with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992, when Buffy pointed to a new jacket and was told: "Please! That's so five minutes ago."

Six years later, the media critic Howard Kurtz picked up on that and wrote in The Washington Post: "The media went wild over the tapes -- Monica and Linda talking about hairstyles ... Iraq was, like, so five minutes ago."

Last year, commenting on "the dreary corporate governance craze," Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times wrote, "Failures at Enron and WorldCom are so five minutes ago."

Recently, commenting on the award by a Scottish heraldic society of a coat of arms to Colin Powell, Time wrote, "Medals are so last month." The vogue use of so is not limited to time. Mena Suvari, described by Newsweek as "the thinking man's sex kitten," took a call at a hair salon and said to her interviewer: "I'm working this call in between my color and toner. That is so bad. I'm so Hollywood."

So we will now take a hard look at so. Though it is used as a conjunction to mean "consequently" ("I was given this ticket, so I went"), the short, ancient word also has a dozen meanings as a modifier. These range from "in a specified way" ("Hold the golf club so") to "in the extent expressed" ("I'm so tired of Valley talk"), from its kindred "also" ("So do I") to "true" ("Say it ain't so, Joe").

But this quicksilver so gives stylists fits. The preceding paragraph should begin with "therefore" or "thus;" so in that sense is considered overly informal to the point of sloppiness. When you mean "accordingly," a fuzzy word like so doesn't do the semantic trick. So there. You can use "So there," meaning "Take that!" or "Didn't I tell you?" because it's an idiom, and idioms trump all rules.

Stylists also hold that so must be followed by that when introducing clauses of result or purpose. Native speakers argue that we are still zigging when the rest of the world has zagged.

"I want to go home so I can get to bed." Should a that follow the purposeful so? In speech, no; in writing, yes. In the most formal writing, use "so that" so that you can show you know how to behave with conjunctions in classy, literate company. But when you're talking and don't need to wear a tie -- lose the that. In a generation or so, the writing will follow the editing of speech. Now that we have established that so that is on the way to becoming so five minutes ago, what about that vogue use of so -- exemplified at the top of today's harangue -- as an intensifier?

So beautiful is more beautiful than very beautiful. Yet when so is used as a modifier of adjectives, it often comes across as gushy. When modifying strong words, be careful of the appearance of excess. When you're sorry, you're sorry; you don't have to pile on with "dreadfully sorry" or "so sorry." Enough already. To put a comma between enough and already is so 20th century.

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