Today I’d like to focus on another informal frame, or sequence, which was brought to my attention by a message printed on a brightly-coloured shopping bag in a shop window: “I SO DON’T HAVE ENOUGH STUFF”.
Let’s assume that this is a meaningful message, and that the ‘I’ of the confession is a bag-toting shopper, implying something like: ‘I have plenty of stuff at home, but look! I’m buying even more, because I can’. Clearly the adverb ‘SO’ emphasises the negative polarity of the verb ‘HAVE’.
The sequence ‘so + negative verb’ also popped up recently in a radio detective serial, when a young theatrical agent, jet-lagged and hyped-up after yet another international jaunt, breathes excitedly:
I’m SO not going to bed until I’ve re-set my Circadian clock.
[She means she’ll stay up and party until her body has adjusted to the current time-zone.]
Is this use particularly American? To find out, I compared the ukWaC corpus, compiled prior to 2007, with the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) – a ‘balanced’ corpus that includes 20m words from each year between 1990 and 2012. I focused on the query ‘so not’, selecting only lines with the emphatic meaning.
I found three times as many instances of emphatic ‘so not’ in COCA as in ukWaC (per million words). In both corpora the most common sequence is ‘BE + so not + ADJECTIVE, as in “This is so not fair” and “I am so not interested”. However, certain grammatical sequences are far more frequent in COCA. This table represents instances as a ratio between COCA and ukWaC (with grammatical sequences on the left, followed by COCA : ukWaC at the end):
BE … so not + … VERB (continuous aspect): This is so not happening. 6 : 1
BE + so not + NOUN: That is so not the case, Brown is so not your colour. 3 : 1
BE + so not + PRONOUN or NAME: That’s so not me / so not Libby. (= not ‘typical of’) 5 : 1
BE + so not + PREPOSITION: I’m so not in the mood. 8 : 1
BE + so not + what/how: It’s so not what I expected. 5 : 1
Emphatic ‘so + VERB’ is also increasingly used without a negative – a sequence hard to spot because of the huge overall incidence of so. This is from a BBC reading by David Sedaris, the brilliant American humourist:
… when starved for food, the humpback cricket will chew off its own legs. … So he eats his legs and, unable to escape danger, he promptly gets eaten himself. That SO sounds like something I would do.
‘So + NOUN’ also occurs positively: “That is so 1991!” and “You’re SO Money Supermarket”. I haven’t a clue what this advertising slogan means, but I can recognise a noun when I see one.
Just two of the many questions raised by this comparison are:
- Can one say that one text is originally ‘American’ and another ‘British’ in this era of rapid cross-cultural interchange?
- How valid is the assumption (beloved of campaigners against language change) that language is travelling on a one-way ticket from ‘over there’ to ‘over here’? Is there a gap between the real and perceived influences of informal American coinages on British English?
And what induced people, sometime in the 1990s, to start sticking a ‘not’ after emphatic ‘so’, and saying “It was so not believable” instead of “It was so incredible”? Does anyone out there know?
This sense of ‘so’ puts the spotlight on the pragmatic information provided in dictionaries. Most label ‘so not’ as informal. Some note that it is becoming increasingly frequent (true – there are no instances in COCA prior to 1996). The Macmillan Dictionary comments (sense 1d):
SPOKEN – used for emphasis with a negative. This is mainly used by young people.
In the impossibly ideal online dictionary, lexicographers would be working round the clock to review all such labels in response to rapidly changing patterns of use. This sense of emphatic ‘so’ is not always negative, so either the label would disappear or examples like “That so sounds like …” would be assigned elsewhere. And ‘mainly used by young people’? As an oldie myself, all I can say is “That is SO last year!”Email this Post