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Concourse 2

so and such


Why do these two small function words get a short guide to themselves?
In fact, they are analysed elsewhere, in different guides on this site, and the reason for that is to do with something called gradience.
Both these words, especially so, slide between word classes and perform a number of grammatical functions.  There are links at the end taking you to the guides to those functions (and to gradience in general concerning how other function words are affected).  What happens here is that we look at the two words independently to see what they can do.
The reason for that is that the words cause considerable confusion for learners of English and teachers need to be alert to what the words can do and how the structures we use with them are constrained.
As we go along, we'll look a little at how other languages deal with the concepts and that will help us to be alert to inter-language errors.



Both so and such are used as emphasising or amplifying pre-modifiers or as expressions of degree but they work differently.  They both carry two related meanings:

  1. The meaning of very as in, e.g.:
        That is so beautiful
        That is such a nice view
  2. The meaning of to that degree or extent as in, e.g.:
        The traffic was so bad that it took an hour to get there
        It was such a nice hotel that we decided to stay another night

This difference in meaning should not be underestimated.  It is often ignored in course materials and it can lead to errors in production and especially in reception if learners are told (or allowed to assume) that both words always mean very or something like it.
That is often the sole meaning in other languages.

  1. such has a number of uses in modification:
    • such pre-modifies a noun phrase to add emphasis as in, e.g.:
          It was such a bad meal that he refused to pay
          The man was such a liar that no-one believed anything he said
    • When such is used in the initial position as an emphasiser, it requires the inversion of subject and verb:
          Such was his dishonesty that no-one believed anything he said
    • such can also act as a determiner in its own right as in, e.g.:
          I don't trust such people
      in which there is no sense of added emphasis and such means something like of that sort.
    • such can also act as a post-modifier of a noun phrase as in, for example:
          Liars such as he can never be believed
      In this case, the use of as with such is compulsory and there is, again, no emphatic effect and the meaning is like him.
      (In fact, the pronoun is often put colloquially, some say erroneously, in the object case after such as in:
          Women such as her are very valuable to the company
      by analogy with the object-case pronoun after the preposition like.)
  2. so also has more than one use as an adverbial modifier
    • so pre-modifies an adjective or adverb phrase to add emphasis as in, e.g.:
          The meal was so badly cooked that he refused to pay
          The man was so often dishonest that no-one believed anything he said
      cannot post-modify phrases like this.
    • When so is used in the initial position as an emphasiser, it, too, requires the inversion of subject and verb:
          So stupid was the idea that nobody took it seriously

Many languages do not distinguish between the two ideas with the use of a different adverb or determiner.
For example, if we translate these two words:
German uses so in both cases, Spanish uses tan in both cases, French uses si in both cases, Czech uses tak in both cases and Greek uses tóso in both cases.
Chinese languages, by contrast, will use the same way to express the ideas (with either zhème or nàme) but distinguish between things distant, in time or place, and things nearby or recent.
Japanese expresses the concept but generally conflates the use with very.

There are differences, too, in the functions that the two words can perform as pre-modifiers.

  1. such can be a pre-determiner coming before another determiner so we can have, for example,
        It was such a beautiful day that we went for a walk
  2. so, on the other hand cannot do this because its nature is adverbial in this sense.  The article determiner sticks with the noun and so modifies the adjective or adverb and so does not function as a pre-determiner.  For example:
        It was so beautiful a day that we went for a walk
        The sun was shining so strongly that I had to get into some shade

Finally, in terms of modification, the co-text often includes a that-clause as the consequence of the heightened nature of the noun, adjective or adverb phrase as we see above.
This, however, only happens when the words mean to that extent or degree and not when the words imply simply very.



Both so and such can act as pro-forms but, again, the grammatical functions they perform are different.

  1. such can act as a pro-form for a noun phrase:
        The shop's hugely varied stock was such that it was impossible to catalogue
        The shopkeeper was a man of eccentric tastes and as such he had a huge range of stuff for sale
        You are the manager and as such it's up to you to decide.
  2. so can act as a pro-form for a verb phrase
        He told me to get two bottles and I did so
    i.e., got two bottles
        Is Peter coming to the party?  Mary said so.

    i.e., said that Peter is coming to the party
        Is it worth the money?  I think so.
    i.e., that it is worth the money
        I'm not a child so don't treat me so
    i.e., as if I were a child
    in all of which so is a pro-form standing in for an entire clause.

Other languages do not use the same words for the functions of pro-form, pre-determiner, determiner or adverb.  For example, most languages would usually prefer a pronoun translatable as it or that to stand for a clause as in:
    He asked me to get the money and I did that / it.
which is possible in English but unnatural.



Both words can act as causal conjunctions but so is much more frequent and occurs with and without that.
We can have, therefore:
    I nailed it down firmly so that it couldn't come loose again
    I nailed it down firmly such that it couldn't come loose

In the second, rather rare use of such, an alternative analysis is that such is a pro-form for an elided noun phrase and the idea is often more easily expressed as
    I nailed it down firmly in such a way that it couldn't come loose.

The conjunctions so and so that are discussed in separate guides to coordination and subordination (link below.)



Only so can act as a conjunct rather than a conjunction.
In this form, it has these meanings:

  1. To express a result
        I overslept, couldn't find a clean shirt, missed my train and had to walk to work.  So, I was pretty late.
    in which so acts to connect the second sentence to the first anaphorically
  2. To express a logical conclusion
        So, she thinks she can do it better, does she?
    in which so implies that the speaker is reaching a conclusion from what has been said
  3. To sum up
        So, where have we got to?
    in which the speaker is about to sum up or recapitulate the arguments or is inviting someone else to do so

There is more on conjuncts in the guide to adverbials (link below).


Teaching the words

Despite what it may say in your coursebook, do not be tempted to teach these words together or jumble the meanings in a single presentation.  The cross-over between them confuses more than it enlightens and, as we saw, the temptation to translate is not one with fruitful outcomes.

However, quite frequently, problems with use and meaning arise in the classroom incidentally to the lesson's aims and the issues do need dealing with.
This can't be done, naturally, by any teacher who hasn't arrived at a satisfactory understanding of how the words work and what their communicative and grammatical functions are in their various guises.

Related guides
gradience to see what other function words can be affected by difficulties assigning word class
conjunction for a general guide with links to specific areas
coordination and subordination for a general guide with links to specific areas
determiners for more on this word class
pre-determiners for more on a closed group of words that can occur before a determiner
adverbials for more on conjuncts, adjuncts, disjuncts and so on
pro-forms for a guide to this area