photo by john branch

So, have you noticed lately that many people are starting sentences with the word “so?” So, why is this? So, I don’t know, but the question gives me the chance to ask how and why useless words and speech patterns regularly creep into our everyday vocabulary without us noticing.

I first became aware of the use of useless words when I read a piece by David Ogilvy, the best advertising copywriter ever. He said, “Never use the word ‘basically.’ It is a basically useless word.”

At that time, I was using the word “basically” a lot. So I stopped.

Wait, that was a useful way to use the word “so.”

Maybe I’m super sensitive to the word “so” because in high school my buddies called me “Soso,” instead of Sosa. I basically hated that.

In 2000, my wife and I lived in Cambridge, Mass. The word “actually” was in vogue. It seemed like most all Ivy League students we ran into were using the word “actually” in their sentences the way people use the word “so” today. In the morning, I would greet the intern at my office with the customary, “Good morning, how are you?” Her response? “Actually, pretty good.” Funny how we become slaves to useless or meaningless chatter. I could have greeted her with, “Good morning.” She could have responded with “Good morning,” and we would have been done. But no, we go on using basically useless words and actually useless phrases in the name of politeness or fashion.

Here’s another one: “totally.” It’s totally useless. I totally miss you. I totally believe you. It’s totally cool. Totally unnecessary. Totally was followed by its equally useless twin, “seriously.” I seriously miss you. I seriously believe you. It’s seriously cool. Seriously, it’s a good thing those two came and went in record time.

How about “like?” Remember “like?” Useless. Ten years ago, everybody liked “like.” It was used to begin a sentence like, “Like, what do you want to do?” It was used in the middle of sentences like, “What do you, like, want to do?” It was used near the end of sentences like, “What do you want to, like, do?” That one hung on so long, I thought I was going to, like, die.

Hillary Clinton fancies the phrase, “you know.” She uses “you know” when she wants to seem more, you know, believable. “I used just one cell phone for convenience, you know.” Or, “Bill and I were, you know, dead broke after leaving the White House.” She sprinkles the “you knows” in her interviews so often, one wonders if she’s trying too hard to sound like, you know, an ordinary person.

Donald Trump’s overuse of the word “amazing” is amazing. “This has been an amazing day for me. My running mate is pretty amazing. My children are all amazing people. My wife is amazing. I’m an amazing businessman. This is an amazing crowd. My small hands are amazing.” The senseless overuse of any word can render it meaningless, no matter how amazing it is.

Something else that happens without us noticing is the way one common phrase suddenly replaces another. The response to “Thank you” had always been “You’re welcome.” Now, the usual response is “No problem,” unless you’re at a Ritz Carlton, where “My pleasure” is preferred.

I have a problem with “no problem.” Mostly because saying “Thank you” does not imply there was ever a problem in the first place.

While I chafe every time I hear a young person reply with “no problem,” I am thankful they’ve quit using the dreaded word “whatever,” whatever that meant.

One last question: Why has “I’m not sure” replaced “I don’t know?” I guess “I’m not sure” sounds smarter than “I don’t know.” And why do kids, when ordering at a restaurant say, “Can I have a bean and cheese?” instead of “I’ll have a bean and cheese.” And why do they never say taco?

A few years ago, one of my granddaughters was on the phone with a girlfriend. The conversation went something like this: “So I go, no way, right? And she goes, whatever, right? And I go, totally! And she goes, awesome, right? So I go, so totally!” They were actually communicating.

My wife Kathy edits everything I write. She wants to make sure I sound halfway smart. I asked her what she thought of this piece. Her response? “It’s so-so.”

Top image: Cartoon by John Branch. 

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Lionel Sosa is CEO of Yes! Our Kids Can, a not-for-profit organization. Its mission: to disrupt generational poverty by instilling a success mindset in every family, no matter their financial circumstance.