Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Dear Mr. Lederer: I have wondered what your take is on the somewhat recent proliferation of people starting sentences with, “So, …” It annoys me mildly, though I’m unsure why. Maybe it sounds to me like they think we have all been awaiting them to continue on with brilliant commentary as they had been previously. Or something. Is it like using, “Well, … “?

— Linda Hughes, Lakeside

Dear Linda Hughes: I too have noticed the metastasizing of the coordinating conjunction so at the start of spoken sentences, especially among the young. As you point out, the impression seems to be “I trust that you’ve understood my statement that came before the so, even though I never actually said it.”

On the other hand, your theory that, at the start of a sentence, so is simply a new form of well makes sense to me, although I think it is closer kin to hey and yo.

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Many people picture linguists, those who study language scientifically, as gray-bearded professors with their eggheads in the clouds, their bespectacled eyes fastened to the pages of ponderous, dusty dictionaries and their feet firmly planted on midair. In reality, there are occasions when linguists are very much involved in reality and can apply their knowledge of language to real-life legal and business situations. Here’s one recent example:

Dear Mr. Lederer: I need a little help from a language expert to understand what this New York City parking sign means:

NO PERMIT ZONE/NO STANDING

7 AM-10 AM/4 PM-7 PM/MON-FRI

1 HOUR PARKING

10AM-4 PM MON-FRI

9 AM-7 PM SAT & SUN

After reading this sign, would you think it is okay to park from 1:20-2:15 p.m. on a Wednesday without a permit? Thank you for your help!

— Diana Greene

Dear Diana Greene: I interpret the sign to mean that one doesn’t need a permit to park for one hour in this area 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Thus, parking 1:20-2:15 p.m. on a Wednesday would be legal.

Dear Mr. Lederer: Thanks so much for your interpretation. My sister, brother, husband and I all interpreted it that way, as well, after studying it carefully for several minutes. We parked there at 1:20-2:15 p.m. on a Wednesday in order to take a brief walk around the World Trade Center Memorial. We came back to find a ticket for $115 on the windshield. We all read the sign again and couldn’t see any way we could have misinterpreted it. Would it be okay if I quote you when I contest the ticket? Thanks again!

— Diana Greene

Dear Diana Greene: You may quote me, and, if it will aid your cause, tell them that I hold a Ph.D. in linguistics and have been a usage editor for the Random House Dictionary of the English Language.

My Esteemed Doctor Lederer: I just wanted to let you know how my parking ticket appeal turned out. We recently received the following letter:

Disposition: NOT GUILTY. Amount due: $0.00

The respondent has been charged with violating Traffic Rule 4-08(c) by standing or parking a vehicle where standing or parking a vehicle is prohibited by signs, markings or traffic control devices.

Review of sign status supports sign wrongly stated claim.

I believe we have you to thank you for this positive turnaround. It must have caused a human being to actually consider the validity of my appeal and take it to a higher authority. Thanks to your help, it was a triumph of justice! I hope they will, as a result, change their poorly worded, misleading parking signs! With our sincere gratitude — Diana Greene and family