The Quantum Pontiff


Friday I gave out a survey in the course I’m teaching this quarter asking for feedback. Among the many helpful responses, was one, which pointed out that I say “so” a lot. Now, I know that when I write I use “now” a lot, but I really hadn’t noticed how much I say “so.” In class today I realized that there were places where I couldn’t even proceed without saying “so.” So this is a post to remind myself to try harder to figure out how to not say “so.” Its not so easy, I must say.


  1. #1 Geordie
    April 21, 2008

    Speaking without use of space fillers is very difficult and requires a lot of practice and feedback. A master at coherent exposition is Jim Rome (the sports talk show guy). A useful tip which works well is to concentrate actively on slowing down your delivery. Breaking your usual cadence and giving your brain more time to parse both help. This trick also helps alleviate excessive nervousness which aggravates the filler issue.

  2. #2 CRM-114
    April 21, 2008

    Why not have fun with it? Warn the class about your ‘so’ habit. Then, at first opportunity, in a clumsy German accent, lead with “Und zo…”.

  3. #3 Joe Fitzsimons
    April 21, 2008

    You and me both. I use ‘so’ so often in papers that the drafts need a specific read through just to cut down on the number of ‘so’s.

  4. #4 MRW
    April 21, 2008

    There was an article in the most recent Seed about the use of “so” among scientists. I’m not sure how much I agree with the analysis, but there definitely is a scientific so.

  5. #5 charlene
    April 21, 2008

    hee! This is hilarious to me, as apparently both Beckman and I have this exact same habit when talking technical matters. One of our friends asked if it was a Caltech thing…

  6. #6 Karen
    April 21, 2008

    There are more annoying fillers. I once worked for a man who used the word “actually” as a filler.

    “Actually, sales were very poor for XYZ in the third quarter, actually, and actually I have promised our CEO that we will double our sales in the fourth quarter. Actually this will not be particularly difficult, actually, because we now have signed up major customers, actually.”

    Seriously. I’m NOT padding here. It’s been a decade since I had that job; I still lunch with fellow ex-employees occasionally, and we all wince whenever one of us inadvertently uses the word in our conversation.

  7. #7 Steven
    April 21, 2008

    I think using “basically” as filler is worse in science: it basically means you’re not precise enough. So I prefer your filler.

  8. #8 J-dog
    April 21, 2008

    Replacement Therapy works best – Use:




    Or pick your own.

    However, if you begin to bring in $50,000 speaking engagement, I want 10%. Of the gross, not the net…

    You could even say: So, Class, please STFU, and thanks for your feedback.

  9. #9 Rossome
    April 21, 2008

    It can’t be all that bad. I once had a professor for calculus who added an emphatic “um” after every sentence. It went way past the bounds of a normal discourse marker, in both frequency and intensity.

    We once clocked him at over two hundred “ums” in a 45-minute class.

  10. #10 Richard
    April 22, 2008

    I think part of the issue with technical language (and especially in math) is that you’re usually talking about sequences of things that imply each other, which means that you need words for “imply” a lot more frequently than in normal conversation. And English simply doesn’t have enough of these words! I agree with J-dog that replacement therapy is probably the best course, in order to make the best use of what diversity there is. Of course, you could also make use of other languages! “Donc”, “also” (“alzo” with the German accent), “allora”, etc.

  11. #11 magetoo
    April 22, 2008

    In my experience, you don’t usually notice verbal peculiarities like these until someone points it out to you. Then you go through a stage of “omg, he says it all the time!”, and then you lose interest and end up back where you started.

    Don’t worry about it too much. Verbal communication is about more than stating facts and getting ideas across; all the ums, pauses and “like, you know” have their functions too, and I suspect it’d be pretty weird if you could get rid of all that and speak “correctly” all the time.

  12. #12 Joe
    April 22, 2008

    Reminds of this from Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language”:

    The German word also is the equivalent of the English phrase “You know,” and does not mean anything at all — in talk, though it sometimes does in print. Every time a German opens his mouth an also falls out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to get out.

    So it could be worse… (Incidentally, Twain’s not really exaggerating.)

  13. #13 Bilal
    April 22, 2008

    “So”, “you know”, etc. are your usual fillers that pop in English conversation. I remember being annoyed by my calculus professor for using “so”, so many times. I found it weird because we just don’t use it that often in India – at least what I can remember from my high school days. The word “basically” reminds me of this senile, bitter old professor English literature in Delhi University who’d chide us for using that word and would often remind us how none of us would amount to much in our lives. 🙂

  14. #14 Sili
    April 23, 2008

    My classical mechanics professor would end Every. Single. Example. he gave with “or what do I know” (I guess the tag is more common in Danish) — It annoyed me sooooo much. I want to shout “You’re the instructor. *YOU* are supposed to know.”

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