Sheidlower in NY Times/"so"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Aug 31 17:52:30 UTC 2000

a long time ago (i've been occupied with other things for a while),
mai kuha asked a question i was about to ask:

  So far, it seems to me that the new SO occurs only after an
  auxiliary. Any counter-evidence, anyone?

a certain amount of gen-X informant work (easy to do if you have a lot
of students around) and random collection of data suggest to me that
the new SO has been extending itself from what i guess to be its
original locale (see below), so that there are now a number of
coexisting syntactic systems.

my guess is that the new SO began as a reanalysis of the degree
modifier SO - with things like 'i am SO tired of that' analyzed as
having, not a predicative AdjP 'SO tired of that', with SO modifying
'tired', but rather a VP (or S) modifier, located between auxiliary BE
and the predicative AdjP 'tired of that' (adverbs in -ly are sometimes
ambiguous between the two scopes: 'i am truly tired' can be either
'truly, i am tired' or 'truly tired is what i am').

that should mean that the earliest examples ought to involve auxiliary
BE in combination with a predicative AdjP.

from there, there are several routes of extension: to other types of
predicative complements with BE (in particular PP: 'i am SO in love
with him'; i'm not sure about predicative NPs, as in 'she is SO (the)
leader of the pack'); and to constructions with VP, rather than AdjP,
complements, whether to BE - progressive BE ('i am SO trying to get
over my disappointment') or passive BE ('the wall was SO eaten up by
termites') - or to other auxiliaries, in particular perfective HAVE
('i have SO gotten over my disappointment') and modals ('i could SO
use a cup of coffee').

all these [invented] examples have gen-X SO in between an auxiliary
and its complement phrase.  as a result, they are subject to (at
least) two analyses: one in which the adverb is located after the
first auxiliary, and one in which it's located at the beginning of the
complement phrase to that auxiliary (but interpreted as modifying a
phrase rather than a single word).  this ambiguity is present for the
adverb NOT, as in 'i will not do that' and 'i am not unhappy', which
can be either an S modifier (outside the complement phrase) or a VP
modifier (within the complement phrase).  the first of these analyses
allows SO to occur in examples where the complement phrase is not
minimal; it can begin with another auxiliary ('i have SO been wanting
to try sushi') or with an internal adverb, including NOT ('i am SO not
tired', 'i am SO not in love with him').  this is another route of
extension from the BE + AdjP examples.

finally, most adverbs that can occur in the "aux1" position (after the
first auxiliary, outside its complement phrase) can also occur
preceding the maximal VP: ' i often am tired' alongside 'i am often
tired'.  (NOT is a famous exception to this generalization.)  this
fact provides the basis for still another extension for gen-X SO, to
the position between the subject and its VP: 'i SO am not going to
put up with this nonsense', 'i SO won't put up with this nonsense' etc.

what i don't have any handle on is the details of the systems that
individual speakers have; there are a lot of variables here.
certainly, for each dimension i've mentioned, there are speakers who
have made some of the extensions along that dimension.  but there's
a lot more to be said, beyond noting that examples like each of the
following have been attested: 'i have SO finished that report", 'i am
SO in love with him', 'i am SO not willing to do that', 'i SO am ready
to hear the results'.

(there's also plenty to say about the pragmatics, too.)

arnold (zwicky at

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