Don't Use "So" as a Vague Intensifier

by Tina Blue
March 23, 2005

Modifiers like much, so, too, and very are called intensifiers. Traditionally classed as adverbs, intensifiers are used to modify adjectives and adverbs by adding force or emphasis, but they do not usually modify verbs.

In the following examples, the intensifiers are printed in bold type:

     I am very sorry.
     The dinner was quite elaborate.
     You finished your homework rather quickly.
     Why do you visit so seldom?

In these examples, very modifies the adjective sorry, quite modifies the adjective elaborate, rather modifies the adverb quickly, and so modifies the adverb seldom.

The following words are commonly used as intensifiers:  


  ~ So . . . That ~

The word so combined with a clause beginning with that can also be used in order to indicate a cause-effect relationship:

~The binding was so old that it practically disintegrated when we opened the book.
~His condition was so far gone that they decided to withdraw all life support.    
~She spoke so quietly that we could not hear her at all from the second row.

In the first two examples, so modifies the adjective old and the adjective phrase far gone. In the last example, so modifies the adverb quietly.

NOTE:   In each of these examples, the word so is combined with a clause beginning with that, in order to indicate a cause-effect relationship. In informal English (though not in formal written English), the word that in the expression so . . . that is sometimes omitted:

The baby was so tired, he fell asleep before we could get him home.

Notice, however, that even in such a sentence, there is a "that clause," and that is clearly implied, even when it is not overtly expressed. It would be wrong to say,

The baby was so tired.

The word so in this example is improperly used as a vague intensifier of the sort warned against by William Strunk and E. B.White, in the widely used and highly respected Strunk and White's Elements of Style:

*From Strunk's Elements of Grammar
Chapter V: Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

So. Avoid, in writing, the use of "so" as an intensifier: "so                          good"; "so warm"; "so delightful."

Learn this general rule:
In writing do not use"so" as a vague intensifier. It must be                     followed by a specific"that" clause:

WRONG: The story was so depressing.
RIGHT: The story was so depressing that I didn't even want to finish reading it.

*Because of copyright issues, recent editions of Strunk and White are not available online, though they are readily available at most bookstores and libraries. This excerpt from an early edition of Strunk can be accessed on line at

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