April 06, 2006

So in style at the NYT

New York Times editorial, "The Amnesty Trap", 4/5/06, p. A22:

All it [the Martinez-Hagel compromise bill on immigration] would do is give a face-saving assurance to hard-liners that immigrants would suffer adequately for their green cards and allow Republicans to reassure suspicious constituents: this is so not amnesty.

Ah, GenX so!  How in style is that?

GenX so -- so-called because it seems to have first appeared in the speech of Generation Xers (in the 80s, with the movie Heathers as a major boost for its spread) -- is recognizable in speech by its characteristic high-rising-falling intonation (which distinguishes it from ordinary intensifying so, even when the intensifier is accented), but can be detected in writing only through its syntactic context: clear cases of GenX so occur in contexts that otherwise are not available for intensifiers -- with dates and similar time expressions ("That is, like, so 1980s", "It was so two years ago"), proper nouns and pronouns ("This is so Iceland", "It's so you"), absolute adjectives ("You are so dead!"), negatives ("It's so not entertaining", "A pizza delivery man who can't find a campus address is so not my problem"), and VPs ("We so don't have a song", "Parker so wanted to be included", "I am so hitting you with the September issue of Vogue!").  There are cases -- like the title of this posting -- that aren't so easy to classify, but the Times editorial's so is a solid example of a GenX use, with a negative.

The thing about GenX so is that, though it's spreading, it's still associated (almost twenty years after Heathers) in the minds of many people with the trendy young, especially young women.  Meanwhile, plenty of older folks (like me) find it handy rather than trendy, and use it every so often.  Nevertheless, it's still an informal usage, so it's a small surprise to see it in a Times editorial, even in a representation of speech.

But the Times's editorial style is not at all stiffly formal.  The editorial writers seem to be aiming at something you might call "relaxed formal"(or possibly "serious informal"), the sort of thing you might expect in essays, on serious subjects, that are meant for a general educated readership.  Part of the point is not to be off-putting, and a friendly conversational tone can be helpful.  So we get things like article omission in the introductory expressions the thing/trouble/point/problem/... is:

Most Americans -- two-thirds, accordng to a Pew Research poll this month -- believe that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  Trouble is, no hard evidence of such a link has been made public.  (NYT editorial "The Illusory Prague Connection", 10/23/02, p. A26)

Apparently, GenX so is now entrenched enough to count as an everyday colloquialism, like Initial Article Omission.  You go, so!

[Note on intensifier so:  Astonishingly, some advice manuals -- like the recent Garner's Modern American Usage -- label plain ol' intensifier so 'very' ("I'm so happy to meet you!") as casual, colloquial, or conversational, too informal in style for use in serious writing.  This one has been around since Old English.  Though it is certainly frequent in conversation (where it rivals, or in some counts, exceeds, very and really), it is not at all rare in serious nonfiction.  Perhaps the reasoning of the advice writers is that a usage that's very common in conversation is appropriate only there.  But that's fallacious reasoning; surely yes and no and clauses without dependent clauses in them (and huge numbers of other usages) are much more frequent in conversation than in serious nonfiction, but there's absolutely no reason to avoid them in formal writing.  What's important is not the relative frequency of a usage in various contexts, but the associations speakers make between the usage and those contexts.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 6, 2006 05:02 PM