Some So-called Guidance

“So-called” is a useful combination of two words. Properly used, so-called signals to listeners that the word or phrase that follows is becoming (or has become) popular or common, but is not official.

But when you’re about to say or write it, please keep some things in mind:

– Webster’s first definition of so-called is “popularly known or called by this term.”

– The second definition is “inaccurately or questionably designated as such.”

– That second definition is important. Depending on the context and tone, so-called may give the impression that we have formed a judgment about the term or words that follow. As Fowler’s Modern English Usage puts it, “so-called is traditionally used before a name or description to signal doubt about relevance or entitlement, as in ‘this so-called work of art.’ ” Cambridge Dictionaries says so-called shows “you think a word that is used to describe someone or something is not suitable or not correct.”

– Alternatives may sound more neutral. “Known as,” is one possible substitute. “Called the” is another. There are cases where a “supporters/opponents call it the …” may be appropriate.

– Alternatives may give the audience more information. That’s why “self-declared Islamic State” is better than “so-called Islamic State.”

– Alternatives will also help us with a repetition situation. We say “so-called” on the air about twice a day on average; and that’s not counting Newscasts.

– So-called should not be used before the actual name of something or a name that has moved into the history books. It’s not the “so-called Gettysburg Address,” for instance.

– Online, the word or term that follows so-called should not be put in quotes. Subsequent references also should not be put in quotes.

(Memmos; Feb. 26, 2015)

February 26, 2015

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