Don’t worry your pretty little heads. I feel fine.
But I went on a long hunt to see whether it’s ok to say the phrase, “I don’t feel so good.” Since I suffered a long time, I felt that you should, too. If you just want to know the conclusion, skip to the bottom.
To me, “so” is properly used when there’s something to measure against. As in, “this veal isn’t so good that I want to eat the whole thing.” It may be good, but it’s not SO good that I’d eat it all. When someone just says, “This veal isn’t so good,” I want to hear the rest. I want to hear to what degree it isn’t good.
Now, what’s weird here is that I don’t have the same problem when “so” is used in a affirmative statement. “This veal is so good!” “That guy is so stupid.” That doesn’t bug me. But thinking rationally, both negative and affirmative statements should have an indication or implication of the degree that “so” refers to.
But English ain’t rational.
I looked it up, of course.
Merriam-Webster Unabridged gives (as their 2b definition):
To a great extent or degree; very; quite; extremely.
Case closed? Not really. All the examples they list from actual writers are affirmative statements. Certain people’s live are “all so patterned and convention-ridden,” for example.
I’m a huge believer in the examples in a dictionary. For one thing, the examples are usually language used by good and respectable writers, and “language used by good and respectable writers” is a decent definition of “acceptable English.”
As we all know, language changes and morphs and degrades and improves. Dictionaries describe it, and we have to figure out for ourselves whether a certain change is acceptable or not. So I turn to good and respectable writers for help. [No, I won’t define a good or respectable writer. This isn’t mathematics and it’s not that clear.]
Another reason to check the examples is that a brief definition often can’t capture the nuances of the language. This is a pretty good case in point. Yes, “so” can mean “very,” and yes, good and respectable writers use it that way. But, at least in this dictionary, the only examples are of affirmative statements.
Whew! Is this pedantic enough yet?
Ok, the next stop was the Oxford English Dictionary. Definition 13a is close, with examples of “not so” meaning, “not very.” But it’s weird, because none of the dozen or so examples bug me. Why?
I finally figured out that the examples aren’t really using “so” to mean “not very” after all! I don’t know how they got past the editors, but they clearly are comparitive. For example:
“A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard.” Well, that’s obviously saying that a voice as thrilling as this one was never heard. It’s NOT saying that a “very” thrilling voice was never heard!
When someone says, “the movie wasn’t so thrilling,” they mean, “it’s not very thrilling,” and that’s the usage that bugs me.
The only example that might work is from 1746: “They neither wrestle, sing, or paint so well.”
The problem here is that all the other examples DON’T work, so I can’t help wondering what the sentence was before this quote. I’m afraid that it was something like, “The Athenians aren’t as cool as the Spartans.” Making it comparitive.
Definition 14a does have a definition, with examples from as far back as Beowulf(!) of writers using “so” as “a mere intensive without comparitive force.” Aha!
But guess what. The definition actually says that this is true “In affirmative clauses.” And not a single one of the 17 examples (which range from the year 347 to 1875) use it in the negative.
So the next step was to see whether there was a corresponding definition for the use in a negative statement. There isn’t.
[Which, by the way, is weird. It’s weird to me that these dictionaries don’t even mention a usage that has become, if not common, at least not rare.]
In the end, I figure that the usage bugs me because it hasn’t been around long enough, or hasn’t been used enough by those respectable and good writers that I go on and on about. Whereas the affirmative usage has been.
And I’m not looking it up in any more dictionaries. Yes, I checked Fowler, which just has the affirmative (not even warning against the negative). Yes, I checked Follett, which ignores it altogether.
[By the way, just to make this post longer, Follett says something completely wrong in its discussion of “try and” (like, “I’ll try and do that”). It says that no one would ever say, “I’ll try and walk to Mexico,” because it’s so unnatural. So it’s not something to guard against. But I think that lots of people would say that.]
Anyway, I doubt that anyone has read this far, but if you have, you’re a die-hard fan, and it might not completely bore you to read that this post uses the word “so” about 10 times. Not counting when it’s in quotes.
For those of you who skip to the bottom of these things, here’s the deal: I think that saying, “This fish isn’t so good,” to mean, “This fish isn’t very good,” is bad English. For now. Until it isn’t. And I’ll let it continue to bug me.