Drama SO

"Jamie is SO going to kiss you!"

(Irwin 2011)

Drama SO is a new usage of the word so that gained prominence starting in the 1980s. Traditionally, so could only modify a phrase whose meaning involved a range of possible degrees or intensities; a phrase with this property is said to be gradable. For example quickly is a gradable term because there are many possible levels of how quickly something moves: very quickly, not that quickly, and too quickly are some examples.

Although so historically could only modify gradable phrases, Drama SO is distinctive because it modifies non-gradable phrases, most notably verb phrases, as in the following examples (all examples are from Irwin (2011) unless otherwise noted):

1) Jamie has SO dated that type of guy before.

2) People are SO wearing flip-flops this season.

3) I am SO not going to study tonight.

This construction is characterized by stress on the verb phrase and a specific attitude on the part of the speaker that expresses what Irwin (2011a) calls "whole-heartedness"—that is, the speaker whole-heartedly feels what he or she is saying. The OED describes this construction as "Modifying a noun, or an adjective or adverb which does not usually admit comparison: extremely, characteristically."

Note that, in linguistic example sentences, Drama SO is usually capitalized like it is in (1), (2), and (3) to reflect the fact that it is stressed.

Who says this?

Drama SO seems to be completely acceptable to most speakers born in the 1960s and later, though it is similar enough to ordinary so that its meaning is usually transparent even to older speakers who may or may not use the construction themselves. Its geographic distribution is widespread and includes the U.K.

Syntactic Properties

Compatibility with all tenses and aspects

When it modifies a verb phrase, Drama SO occurs before the tensed main verb and is compatible with any tense or aspectual class. Sentences (4) and (5) illustrate the compatibility with both past and non-past tenses:

4) Mary SO completed her lab on time.

5) Simon SO knows categorial grammar.

With modals and auxiliaries

When the sentence contains a modal or auxiliary, Drama SO can occur either before the auxiliary or modal, as in (6a), or after the auxiliary or modal, as in (6b):

6)  a. I SO should call my parents tonight.

 b. I should SO call my parents tonight.

Types of clause

Drama SO is always used in a declarative clause, which may be used to answer a question, to agree with an assertion, or to contradict an assertion. However, Drama SO is typically unacceptable in questions of both wh- form, as in (7a), and yes-no form, as in (7b):

7) a. *When is Jamie SO gonna break up with that guy?

 b. *Is Mike SO going to that Depeche Mode concert?

The only kind of question in which Drama SO can occur is a negative yes-no question that expects a positive answer, as in (8):

8) Isn't Socialism SO totally cool?

Note that ordinary so, in contrast to Drama SO, can occur in all types of questions, including wh-questions like (9a) and positive yes-no questions like (9b):

9)  a. What are you so sad about?

 b. Is Jamie really so happy with that guy?

Incompatibility with extent clauses

Drama SO cannot introduce extent clauses, in contrast to ordinary so. For example, (10) is ungrammatical because it contains Drama SO introducing an extent clause:

10) *We are SO going out tonight [that we won't be back till morning.]

By contrast, ordinary so can introduce extent clauses, as in (11):

11) We are going out so late tonight [that we won't be back till morning.]

Syntactic Analysis

Drama SO as a degree word modifying totally

Irwin (2011a) proposes to explain the distribution of Drama SO by viewing it as a degree word that modifies the speaker-oriented adverb totally. For example, under this analysis the sentence in (12a) is underlyingly (12b) with totally not pronounced:

12)   a. Jamie has SO dated that type of guy before.

 b. Jamie has SO [totally] dated that type of guy before.

This view predicts that the distribution of Drama SO should match that of the adverb totally.

Note that the sense of totally in question is the speaker-oriented adverb totally, which can be loosely equated to definitely, as opposed to the manner adverb totally which means "completely." The speaker-oriented version is used in sentences like (13a) while the manner adverb version is used in sentences like (13b):

13)   a. I [totally/definitely/wholeheartedly] want to go to the movies.

 b. I [totally/completely] finished my homework.

Positive polarity item

Speaker-oriented totally is a positive polarity item, and therefore it cannot occur in the scope of negation. Because it contains a null totally, Drama SO also patterns as a positive polarity item and cannot occur in a negative (downward-entailing) environment. Thus, (14) is unacceptable with Drama SO:

14) *Jamie has not SO dated that type of guy before. (Drama SO)

By contrast, ordinary degree so can occur in a negative environment as in (15):

15) I’m not so happy about Jamie’s new boyfriend. (ordinary degree so)

Embedded clauses

Irwin (2011a) claims that Drama SO cannot occur in embedded clauses. In her view, this is because totally cannot scope out of the embedded clause to act as a speaker-oriented adverb. However, these judgments are not shared by the writers of this page, and it seems that Drama SO may be able to occur in embedded clauses. For example, the sentence in (16) is completely acceptable to us; it reflects certainty on the part of John (not on the part of the speaker) that Mary aced the physics exam:

16) John thinks that Mary SO aced that physics exam.

Phonological Properties

In Drama SO constructions, so must receive the highest pitch in the sentence. As seen in the following examples from Potts (2004), if so is stressed, the sentence is grammatical as in (17a); otherwise it is not grammatical as in (17b):

17)   a. Chris is SO next in line.

 b. *Chris is so next in line.

Pitch also distinguishes Drama SO from the so that occurs in an emphatic contradiction of a negative statement. For example, the reply spoken by speaker B in (18) contradicts the utterance of speaker A, and the auxiliary verb in speaker B's utterance must be stressed to express the intended contradictory meaning:

18) A: Jamie's not going to kiss me tonight.
      B: Jamie IS SO going to kiss you! (contradictory so)

The same string of words could instead include Drama SO, as in (19):

19) Jamie is SO going to kiss you! (Drama SO)

In order to get the reading of Drama SO, the auxiliary must be unstressed. Thus, Drama SO features stress on so but no stress on the auxiliary, whereas emphatic contradiction features stress on both the auxiliary and so.

Drama SO data

(open the map in a new window | see the data in spreadsheet format)


Drama SO in popular culture

The line "That was so not Mavis's style" occurs in the book Is everyone hanging out without me? (And other concerns) by Mindy Kaling (2011, p. 45) (retrieved 8/10/2015)

The phrase "so pro bono" shows up in a design (retrieved 8/10/2015) by K. Woldeyohannes (retrieved 8/10/2015)

A tweet by Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi on Nov. 26, 2011, (retrieved 8/10/2015) stated "today is so a cuddle day I feel."

A Yahoo Answers question in Nov. 2011 (retrieved 8/10/2015) contained the line "Got Faith? this is so a sign I'm marrying Tim Tebow?"

An AT&T commercial (retrieved 11/22/2011) used the phrase "so 46 seconds ago."

"2009 is so yesterday!", "2010 is so day before tomorrow!", and "2011 is so six weeks from this coming Sunday!" all appear in a Zippy comic (retrieved 8/10/2015)

"I'm so 3008, you so 2000 and late" is in lyrics of the song "Boom Boom Pow" by the Black Eyed Peas (2009) (retrieved 8/10/2015)

"Grow up, Heather. Bulimia is so '87" is spoken by the character Heather Chandler in the movie 'Heathers' (1988).

"God, you're so the opposite!" is spoken by the character Mary Wilke in Woody Allen's (1979) movie 'Manhattan"

Page contributed by Phoebe Gaston on November 22, 2011

Page updated by Tom McCoy on August 10, 2015


Irwin, Patricia. 2011. SO [TOTALLY] speaker-oriented: An analysis of "Drama SO". Manuscript, NYU.

Irwin, Patricia. 2011b. Totally high: Drama SO and the distribution of a speaker-oriented adverb. Paper delivered at Yale University, Syntax Colloquium, October 14, 2011.

Potts, Christopher. 2004. Lexicalized intonational meaning. In UMOP 30: Papers on prosody, ed. Shigeto Kawahara, 129-146. Amherst, MA: GLSA.

"So." Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series. December, 2005. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 17 November 2011 <http://www.oed.com/>

Further reading

Adams, Michael. 2003. Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon. Oxford University Press.

Bylilina, Elizaveta. 2011. This is so NP! Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic, and Communication 6: 1-29. Available here.

Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zwicky, Arnold. 2006. So in style at the NYT. Language Log. Retrieved from: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002994.html.