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I so don’t say “so” like that

In my youth, it was common to use “so” as an intensifier in the following way: “I’m so excited / I’m so excited / I’m so… scared!” In certain respects, this usage is incorrect. Properly speaking, “so” should be followed by a clause beginning with “that” and describing the consequences of the degree to which you are experiencing the adjective. Classic example: “I’m so hungry that I could eat a horse.” Using “so” without a qualifier would, by analogy, intensify the adjective without bound: “I’m so hungry that anything is possible for me now.”

Ah, what innocent days those were! But it was all ruined when Chandler from Friends took things a step further. Rather than limiting the use of “so” to what one might call adjectives of experience (excited, scared, hungry), Chandler began using “so” as an intensifier for personal actions: “I’m so not going to that party.” I’ll admit that the door for such a usage was provided by the frequent use of past participles as the adjective of experience (excited, scared) — the appearance was that of a passive-voice construction. With that in mind, why not use the same structure for the active voice as well?

Why not, indeed? Oh, I know: because it’s fucking annoying. Yet I appear to be the only person who thinks this. Spending time with people younger than me, I learned something deeply disturbing: young people find this use of “so” to be completely unremarkable. I am old enough to remember that it was introduced by Friends, whereas for them it was always-already part of the available syntax.

Even more disturbing: for this usage to become so pervasive in such a short time, there must’ve been something convincing about it, a sense that it filled in a gap in the language. And yet it did not fill any gap. The constructions in which “so” was used as an unbounded intensifier were not in fact passive voice constructions, and so the analogy with active voice constructions is a false one.

How can I tell they’re not passive voice constructions, which is to say that the apparent past participles are acting as run-of-the-mill verbal adjectives rather than participles? The key is in the prepositions. Passive constructions use the preposition “by.” Returning to my examples, we would say, “I’m excited about… I’m scared of…” Adding another one: “I’m interested in….” Putting it differently: a passive construction is a reversal of an active one. Thus we would say: “cinema excites me,” with the passive equivalent being, “I am excited by cinema.” Again: “knitting interests me,” or passively, “I am interested by knitting.” Some external force (cinema, knitting) is the agent in these active/passive pairings, whereas in the more natural “I’m interested in knitting,” “interested” serves to describe my own internal state, not the action of knitting upon me.

In conclusion, if someone managed to combine this usage of “so” with the horrifying abomination of saying “natch” for “naturally” in one sentence, my very soul might explode.


June 13, 2009 - Posted by | syntax, television


  1. You *so* need to chill out.

    (And yeah, of course I think this. Natch.)

    Comment by bitchphd | June 13, 2009

  2. You know what? The only person I know of other than you who regularly uses “natch” is… Kevin Drum!!!

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 13, 2009

  3. Does he really??? I find that amazing.

    Comment by bitchphd | June 13, 2009

  4. Although we’re both Californians.

    Comment by bitchphd | June 13, 2009

  5. “Natch” makes my skin crawl.

    Comment by stras jones | June 13, 2009

  6. In my experience, the abbreviated version of probably, “probs” and definitely, “defs” are both more common and more annoying than “Natch”

    Comment by So Natch | June 13, 2009

  7. I so thought this was a ben wolfson post until a few paragraphs in.

    Comment by RobDP | June 13, 2009

  8. totally!

    Comment by tewhalen | June 13, 2009

  9. I never got past the surprise of “I’m so excited” being followed by anything other than “I just can’t hide it.”

    Comment by Ray Davis | June 13, 2009

  10. Speaking of which, the idiomatic parallel for this usage of “so” would be that usage of “just”, right? A corrected and purer intensifier, lacking the “barely” connotation of “just” in other idiomatic expressions: “Don’t mind me. I’m just excited. I so can’t hide it.”

    Comment by Ray Davis | June 13, 2009

  11. Ahem: the “barely” or “only” connotations.

    Comment by Ray Davis | June 13, 2009

  12. The adjective “by”?

    Comment by ben | June 13, 2009

  13. Just so.

    Comment by nnyhav | June 14, 2009

  14. i was soo surprised to find 4 people following me on twitter
    looks like spam though

    Comment by read | June 14, 2009

  15. I say “natch.”

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 14, 2009

  16. I so don’t think your etymology of the personal intensive function of “so” linking it to ‘Friends’ is correct. I think it was a common teen-age usage in CA well before the TV program began. I admit this is anecdotally related to vague memories of my own kids teen-age years but I’d posit that few things actually originate in TV programs that are not already actively part of the zeitgeist.

    Comment by grackle | June 14, 2009

  17. Until this very moment, I had no idea what “natch” meant. I thought it was some fancy-pants smart word.

    Comment by Di Kotimy | June 17, 2009

  18. An episode of MST3K has two characters snooping around a cluttered but seemingly uninhabited space, dialoguing approximately thus:
    —It’s quiet in here.
    —A little too quiet.
    —And it’s dark.
    —A little too dark.
    And finally,
    —Say, this is a big garage.
    “A little too big garage,” says Mike.

    Comment by Standpipe Bridgeplate | June 18, 2009

  19. The same basic schema was employed in one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, I think the first.

    Comment by ben | June 19, 2009

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