As a result, I’ve started hearing a lot of folk theories:
Well, that’s not really true.
First of all, it turns out that well is a lot more common than so — it occurred about twice as frequently at the beginning of turns in a 2.5 million word corpus.
Even more importantly, so and well don’t really do the same thing in a sentence — well indicates that whatever’s going to come next isn’t precisely the anticipated or desired response, while so is a bit more neutral. However, so tells us something else: what’s going to come next isn’t directly connected to what was just said.
So, let me tell you about turn-taking
There’s a whole field of study of language called conversation analysis, and those scholars study exactly what you’d expect: the patterning of everyday conversation. And a whole lot of that is about turn-taking. How do we take turns at all, rather than all talking over each other? How do we know when it’s our turn? How do we know whose turn it is?
Sometimes the person who’s speaking chooses the person who’s going to speak next. In casual conversation, we do this with eye contact or by addressing a particular person or set of people. In formal settings, we have all kinds of complicated ways of doing this — think about raising your hand in a classroom, or being formally called up to speak in court.
But sometimes — quite a lot of the time — we nominate ourselves to speak next. And discourse markers, including verbalized pauses, do a lot of this work. Both well and so communicate ‘I’m about to start talking,’ especially if you say them right as, or right after, someone else finishes a clause. But they communicate very different things about what you’re about to say.
Well, they don’t seem different to me
Let’s start with well. In general, well alerts the people you’re talking to that, in some way or another, you’re not going to provide the expected response.
The expected response to a positive yes-no question is yes. And if you start with well, it indicates some other response — a no, or an extended or qualified yes. Let’s say someone asks you, “Do you want to have dinner with me tonight?”
- You can say, “Well, I can’t.”
- You can say, “Well, not really.”
- You can say, “Well, I guess so.”
- You can say, “Well, yes.” But try it — it only works with a particular intonation, one that indicates some hesitation.
- On the other hand, it makes zero social sense to say, “Well, I’m super excited about it!”
Similarly, you can use well to begin your response to a wh-question, but not with a straightforward answer to the question. In response to “What’s your daughter’s name?” you have some possibilities.
- You can use well to introduce a more complicated answer: “Well, Sarah, but everyone calls her Naomi.”
- You can use it to suggest the answer isn’t entirely straightforward: “Well, we call her Naomi.”
- You can use it to clarify or object to the terms of the question: “Well, I don’t like to give specifics about my kids on the internet.” “Well, I don’t actually have a daughter.”
- But it doesn’t make much social sense to say, “Well, Sarah.”
And the expected — or at least preferred — response to a statement is agreement. If you start off by saying well, you’re probably critiquing the statement or disagreeing with it in some way. Imagine someone telling you, “I love Jennifer’s dress.”
- You can use well to disagree with them or temper your agreement: “Well, it’s not my taste, but it looks good on her.”
- You can use well to critique the statement itself: “Well, let’s focus on what she’s saying instead of what she’s wearing.”
- But it doesn’t make social sense to say, “Well, me too!” (Well, I suppose you can say, “Well…me too!” if you want to communicate a mid-stream change of heart, but that’s about the only context. Also, see what I did there?)
More specifically, well doesn’t just disappoint expectations. It also allows you to privilege your own experience or perspective over someone else’s, even when you’re agreeing. That’s something of a subtlety, though — I recommend John Heritage for the specifics.
So, let’s talk about so
Meanwhile, there are a few fairly obvious uses of so:
- It works as an intensifier (“He was so ugly” or “I so love that woman.”), but it can’t do this at the very beginning of a phrase.
- You can use it at the end of a turn to indicate that you’re done speaking, (“And then I called him, so…”)
- It marks causality (“He didn’t feel good, so he went home”). But that doesn’t account for a lot of its uses, even at the beginning of a turn.
To see one of the most common uses of so, think about a particularly American cliché: “So, how about those [local sports team]?” What does that sentence do? It changes the subject. And that’s a lot of what so does at the beginning of a turn — it moves the conversation from one topic to another.
But so doesn’t just let us change the subject. It does so in a particular way — it marks the new topic as one that’s been ‘pending’ in some way or another, as opposed to, say, by the way, which explicitly marks the new topic as an aside, or oh, which marks the new topic as something that was just noticed. As Galina Bolden writes, starting a turn with so “characterize[s] the upcoming action as having been ‘on the speaker’s mind’ or ‘on agenda’ for some time.”
Phone calls make it particularly clear. People use so to move from greetings to the chief topic of the call:
- So, I heard you were getting married. Congratulations!
- So, I was calling because we haven’t talked in a bit.
- So, did you hear about Paul already?
And we see exactly the same pattern in live conversation.
- So, we have to plan that party.
- So, how’s your mother?
- So, I’ve been meaning to ask you how you like the new place.
In other words, so lets us change the subject back to something that’s already been hovering on our conversational to-do list.
Well, I don’t know about all this
Given my first example of so, you might be getting skeptical right around now. Surely, you’re thinking, the local sports team is not constantly on everyone’s pending conversational agenda. And you’d be right. In fact, local sports teams are pretty much never on my conversational agenda.
All the same, I appreciate, and make use of, “So, how about those [local sports team]?” I say it when I not only want to change the subject but also want to be overt about it.
How come? Precisely because we’ve all internalized how so works. By presenting a new topic as if it has already been ‘on the agenda’, so lets us shift pretty seamlessly. At the same time, it’s a topic that’s not particularly high on the agenda, if indeed it is on the agenda at all. And that, in turn, breaks the fourth wall and allows me to make it clear that I’m not just changing the subject to keep the conversation going. Instead, I’m doing so to avoid some other topic.
After all, that’s the really fun thing about language — we use it to create our social reality, not just reflect it.
- Bolden, Galina B. 2009. Implementing Incipient Actions: The Discourse Marker ‘So’ in English Conversation. Journal of Pragmatics 41: 974-998.
- Heritage, John. 2015. Well-Prefaced Turns in English Conversation: A Conversation Analytic Perspective. Journal of Pragmatics 88: 88-104.
- Norrick, Neal R. 2009. Interjections as Pragmatic Markers. Journal of Pragmatics 41: 866-891.