Last week Dave Hoffman made the following observation on writing and word usage:
"All else equal, shorter law review articles are better than longer ones. But bloat’s allies are legion: editors; footnote-related positional competition; bad publisher incentives, etc. For fun, I decided to test a few of Strunk & White’s dreaded common needless phrases to see which appears most often in law review articles."
The phrases he found most needlessly used were “the question as to whether” and “the fact that." Both of these phrases are generally superfluous (I say generally because I dislike using the words "always" or "never" in this context). "The question as to whether" can be replaced with "whether" and "the fact that" can almost always be deleted without any loss in clarity.
Larry Cunningham, also at Concurring Opinions, posted a pretty funny comment on the thread (number 14) using a lot of Strunk & White's needless phrases (Dave said it was irresistible, and I agree). Yesterday Larry noted that his comment had started with the word "so" as a "nudge . . . against an idiomatic fashion to begin sentences with “So.”" After noting that it may be improper English (citing to a wiki.answers article about that usage), he concludes:
"I am convinced it is not good for professors to follow the idiomatic fashion. A few years ago, my law school interviewed an entry-level candidate who began sentences with “So” often. Many colleagues cited the annoyance as a negative. They tried to suppress the habit’s significance when evaluating the overall record, recognizing the idiomatic fashion, but it hurt the candidate. We did not extend an offer."
I wonder whether the problem here was idiomatic fashion, or just plain annoyance at needless repetition. Does that make its use wrong? Not to discount wikianswers, but if you consult Strunk & White, they only list "so" as a needless word when used as an intensifier (ie, "so hot" or "so good"). They do not address it at the start of sentences or in other uses.
Persuasive to me on this point, however, is this entry from the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style:
So. A. Beginning Sentences with.
Like And and But, So is a good word for beginning a sentence. Each of these three is the informal equivalent of the heavier and longer conjunctive adverb (Additionally, However, and Consequently or Therefore). Rhetoric, not grammar, is what counts here. The shorter word affords a brisker pace—e.g.: “Under a state law enacted last year, prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, but the state Supreme Court has ruled that the change cannot be applied retroactively. So Mark Brown is out walking around” (Lancaster New Era).
The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for "so" that appears to approve of its use at the start of a sentence, "5. c. An introductory particle," with the example, "So, let me see: my apron." Another definition (10.b.) declares "so" can be used as "an introductory particle, without a preceding statement (but freq. implying one)." Given my reading, I don't think starting a sentence with the word "so" breaks any clear rule of grammar or usage.
None of this does anything, however, to help the faculty candidate in Larry's story who repeatedly said, "so," as he spoke. I'm guessing it might not have been the choice of word that bothered the committee (though they may have thought it was), but the repetition. If the candidate had said, "um" "er" or "narf!" repeatedly, that likewise would have been annoying. Perhaps the "so" was unnecessary as used (ie, it was a comfort word, not purposefully uttered), but it still wouldn't matter that it was the word "so" that was used. Without overuse, however, such as in blog posts, it might be appropriate (though in looking back at my own posts here, I have been using it frequently, and likely too frequently).
I think Dave's original message -- watch out for unnecessary word usage -- is a good one. I have a tendency to length over conciseness, and I work hard to shorten my formal writing through multiple edits, though I don't always succeed (in blogging, I usually don't have the time to do four or five edits or else I would post less frequently than I already am). For Larry's point, if we think of it more as "use words when you mean to use words, or else even good words can be used superfluously," I'd agree. As an argument against the word "so" as a way to start sentences, I don't think I do.
And it's been hard, but I didn't start a single sentence in this post with the word "so."