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so-so, adjective : neither very good nor very bad : middling a so-so performance

I heard some non-native speakers used the word so-so, but I have never seen it's used by a native English speaker. Do natives really use it in practice?

I am also wondering what word(s) native speakers would use to express neither very good nor very bad, something not very attractive, but not that bad and that kind of idea. The one I can think of used by natives is: okay. E.g. The book is ok.

Any thoughts?

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Despite the superficiality of a question about intros, there's a deeper question about how common are the various ways of responding to "How are you?" in a neutral fashion. Just answering if people use it is barely touching the surface.

Learners of English are sometimes surprised by this greeting: "How are you?", from now on 'HAY', seems almost intrusive into one's feelings and situation, expecting a detailed retelling of one's activities. All that is really doing is saying 'hi', you aren't really expected to go on at length, just say any one of the many short empty responses. "Pretty good!" "I'm doing well", "Fine, you?". No one cares about the answer.

OK, that's harsh. People of course care, but it's just a greeting a start of a conversation, not a literal, prompt for an essay. You're not expected to be factual or detailed, just respond to get to the next thing, if there is even a next thing (there's the classic Britishism "How do you do?" whose most expected response is ... the same phrase "How do you do?"; illogical if you're are forcing literalism, but just fine with a curtsy.

With that out of the way, one can put some minimal meaning into the response: life is good, life is bad, or somewhere in the middle, the "so-so" area. First, the most common response is on the good side because anything else almost requires an inquiry into details and the HAY phaticism is, given the above, not expected to elicit that.

There are many responses to HAY (the following is in no way exhaustive)

  • good: I am doing well, I am good, I am fine, I am great, Doing well, I'm excellent!, 'Great. And you'.
  • bad: Not so great, I could be better, (a sigh), I've had better days, Fine considering,
  • and in between: I'm OK, So-so, Fine, I'm doing about average, fair to middlin (a quaint understated regionalism, don't use it it's just for exposition)

People use and recognize 'so-so', but really not as much as other instances of similar meaning things. It used to be more common but not as much nowadays.

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There are a lot of caveats about this graph. Among other problems, Google NGrams is limited to print, not how people actually speak, I may have left out more common ways of writing these things and subtle variations on spelling can sway things considerably.

The word is just introduced in EFL situations, in a misguided attempt to understand the greeting literally, in order to fill out the lexical gap ("there's good and there's bad, what about in between?").

Socially, you should almost always say one of the 'good' ones, unless you're really looking for sympathy and expect time to explain.

Of course if you're dealing with a health professional, that is one instance where you want to respond more exactly with the literal truth. "How are you?" "Not so good, the steering column has me trapped and I can't feel my legs" is very appropriate (if that is indeed the case).


'So-so' is only a response to "How are you?" and "How's it going?", but not really to other greetings like "What's up?", "What's happening?", "Hey", "Good to see you!". As I speak mostly with AmE speakers, I don't really know the greeting habits of outre-mer colinguates, but Google ngrams tells us that there has been a slight preference in the US for HAY in comparison to the UK, but I don't find that difference significant.


'meh' has been suggested as an alternative to 'so-so'. Grammatically, 'meh' is more of an interjection than a consistent part of speech. You can't really say "I had a meh day", you're more likely to say "It was really meh today". The meaning of meh almost is an abbreviation of "I don't really care", or 'I have no feelings one way or the other", and doesnt work very well as an adjective. Also, to answer HAY with meh is a little inappropriate as a politeness response.

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    Very good explanation. I'd also say that I've never actually actively heard someone say the word (phrase? vocalisation?) 'meh' as part of a sentence (and I'm part of the generation that started using it!). The only use I've actually come across is as a standalone response which I read to be one of the 'not so good' responses. So "Hey, how are you?" -> "Meh", which would read to me as an invitation to ask what's wrong similar to responding with "Not so great". – Ynneadwraith Jul 2 '18 at 13:50
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    Side note: unless you're relatively close with the person speaking to you, answering the customary "How are you"/"How do you do"/"How's it going" with anything less positive than "Fine, you?" can be read as quirky at best and rude at worst. – Maciej Stachowski Jul 2 '18 at 14:16
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    I'd disagree with @Ynneadwraith - I've heard "meh" used in a sentence, but the whole sentence pretty much boiled down to just "meh"... "it was a bit meh". To expand on your second paragraph - sometimes people will even answer the question before it's been asked - "Hi.".... "Yeah fine".... "How are you?". You can catch these people out by changing the question... "Hi".... "Yeah fine"...."Can you buy me a drink?" – Darren Bartrup-Cook Jul 2 '18 at 14:17
  • If you search for I'm fine and I'm okay (spelled out instead of OK), you get far more results. People also use I'm more than I am. – mbomb007 Jul 2 '18 at 14:31
  • @mbomb007 yes. "I'm" is much much more common. I should encourage exploration of the possibilities. 'Fine' is weird because it could be positive, it could be neutral. – Mitch Jul 2 '18 at 14:45
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Yes, people do say so-so, and they write it as well. You can find plenty of examples in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), like this:

Bottom line: A governor with a so-so staff and so-so appointees will have a so-so governorship.

Or:

What would Gandhi do? It's the core question on this campus. Students I met spoke sincerely of Gandhi as a role model. But they didn't intend to follow him in lockstep. A young woman told me she was there only because her father loved Gandhi. "For me he's so-so," she said, as a teacher nearby lifted her eyebrows in disapproval.

And if you check the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), you can see that it's not particularly less common than it used to be. It's currently around the 23000th most common word in COCA, which is not terribly common, but not extremely rare, either.

If you search a corpus of spontaneous speech like Switchboard or Brown, you can find examples here and there, but most of them are false positives – disfluencies where speakers say so twice, when they would only write it once, or where they repeat so twice for emphasis.

It's difficult to compare the numbers from different corpora, but my personal impression is that although people do use so-so in casual conversation, it's actually somewhat more common in writing than speech. This is sure to vary from speaker to speaker, however, and some speakers most likely use so-so in casual speech more frequently.


Notes:

I used COHA instead of Google Books Ngram Viewer because of the large amount of false positives for this string in the Google Books database.

Requires a free LDC account.

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Yes, the term is used quite often by English speakers. OK is also frequently heard. Whereas 'OK' can be used in a positive manner ("I saw Suzy's husband last night, he is very OK in the looks department"), 'so-so' is almost always used to indicate mediocre or barely tolerable.

Both expressions can be used to describe almost anything: e.g.

The party was (a bit so-so)/( OK). We left early and went elsewhere.

It's (a so-so)/(an OK) job, but it will do till something better comes along.

He is (a so-so)/(an OK) cook, but he is much better than me.

Gary's new girlfriend is (a bit so-so)/(OK) in looks, but she has a great personality.

Be careful not to confuse 'so-so' with 'so-and-so'. The latter can be used as an informal disparaging term (usually being a euphemism for a more emphatic swear word), e.g.

Be careful around the new boss, I hear he is a right so-and-so.

Keep an eye on Fred, he can be a regular so-and-so after a couple of beers.

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    I also heard meh. Is it the same as so-so? – dan Jun 30 '18 at 5:39
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    @dan Depending on the context, they are very similar, although meh has a more negative connotation. If a story I wrote was called so-so or OK, I would not be too upset. I might be a little offended if it was described as meh. Note that meh can have other meanings as well. – forest Jun 30 '18 at 5:48
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    I'd say meh has more to do with nonchalance or "I don't care". – A. Lau Jun 30 '18 at 8:21
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    @dan: Meh is probably more of a New York City/Northeast expression. Living in the western US, I don't think I've ever heard it used, just seen it in things originating there. – jamesqf Jun 30 '18 at 17:35
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    I haven't head so-so since the adoption of meh. – Mazura Jun 30 '18 at 18:27
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They do, though the phrase isn't as common as it probably once was. These days you would most likely hear it on its own as an answer to a question (e.g., "How was the movie?" "Eh, so-so.").

As you mentioned, "okay" is probably the most common word used in that context.

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    I think we use it when we've already used "OK" and don't want to repeat... "How was the movie?" "It was just OK...the plot was interesting but then the acting was only so-so." – user3067860 Jul 2 '18 at 19:05
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I'm a native speaker (born in New York) and do use so-so, but perhaps not as often as I formerly did. I rarely hear younger speakers use it, so it may be passing out of fashion.

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In British English, I would suggest it's a well understood phrase; not a well used one.

I believe I've only ever heard it actually spoken to describe the French comme ci comme ça - a phrase I would use in England to an Englishman (and have) sooner than I would 'so-so'.

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As a native English speaker with predominantly native English speaking friends and colleagues, I very rarely hear so-so, and agree that it is a giveaway that one is likely not a native English speaker.

Much more common are okay, alright, fine, decent, and eh. Even the less common options of middling, passable and average are magnitudes more common than so-so.

The same is true of "And you?" in response to a question; it is a giveaway that one is likely not a native English speaker. Much more common are "How about you/yourself?" or "What about you/yourself?"

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    Thanks for the answer! Can you tell the region if possible? Is it possible a regional thing, because I've seen an answer says it's "quite often"? – dan Jun 30 '18 at 8:48
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    @Jase I find your answer very interesting. I was born in Scotland and have lived in Australia since I was 12, so I am a native English speaker. I often use so-so to describe things, although mainly when talking; I rarely use it if I am writing. Many, although not all, of my associates also this expression. I am in my mid-sixties, so maybe our different experiences are age related. Also, when asked, "How are you?", I will usually answer "Fine, and you?" – James Jun 30 '18 at 8:50
  • @James: Living in the western US, I have just the same experience of both so-so and "And you?". – jamesqf Jun 30 '18 at 17:38
  • @James I live in a major city in Australia. I suspect you are right that it may be age related, as I am in my mid-twenties, but I of course cannot be sure. – Jase Jul 3 '18 at 1:48
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I'm not sure how widely it is used in the US, but in South Africa we certainly use the term "so-so", in actual fact I will not be surprised if the person that you heard use the term heard it from a South African.

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As a native (British) English speaker I very rarely use (or hear) "so-so". If something is so-so we are likely to describe it as "alright", "ok", or "fine". To emphasise "so-so-ness" we might use one of those words with a hesitant, querying, or even sarcastic tone. When a Brit describes something as "fine" it could mean anything from "awful" to "very good" depending on the tone used.

We might also use the suffix "-ish" eg "the book was ok-ish" or "the meal was good... ish."

More formally, we might use "average", "standard" or "acceptable" but again the tone and context can turn these words into a compliment or an insult.

"So-so" might be used more often in written communication where tone of voice can't be used, making some of the above methods less clear.

  • Pretty much everything you've said here seems true in the US, too. As for "good-ish," I'm not likely to use that one, but I know I've heard my son use that construct, so it might be generational more than geographical. – J.R. Jul 2 '18 at 14:53
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The meanings of okay and so so are quite different though. Whereas Okay validates, welcomes, authorizes, suffices, passes, opens, begins, thumbs up, so so hesitates, is unimpressed, is not buying it, has some reservation, questions the quality, challenges the purpose, has no further interest, rather see what's next!

Using okay to thumb down, or to mean 'so-so', is, in many ways, a mistake we commonly make.

I just can't imagine how non-native speakers could invent new words, and expressions, in a foreign language, or see how these words could become a part of common vocabulary either, which natives speakers would then need to learn? Oddly, this very interesting question, somewhat, lacks sense.

To illustrate "so-so" giving a numerical identity, I think it would represent less than half of what I expected, keeping in perspective 0.5 is the okay line.

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    I wouldn’t call this a “mistake,” particularly if enough surrounding context made the intended meaning clear. For example: How was the movie? Answer: It was okay, but it wasn’t great. In usages like that, I’m not sure I’d label okay and so-so as “quite different”; I’d be more inclined to say they “overlap". But I do like your descriptions of the two. – J.R. Jun 30 '18 at 11:18
  • user77422 - You've convinced me that the two terms are not grammatically interchangeable, but I still think they are roughly synonymous and I wouldn't characterize them as "quite different" in meaning. Were I a doctor and two of my patients gave those two responses, I wouldn't perceive a whole lot of difference, but perhaps we should ask @MaulikV – he's the doctor in the house. – J.R. Jul 2 '18 at 10:32
  • Thank you Doctor. I just wonder if these two expressions needed " surrounding context " to overlap, would overlapped meanings imply a certain degree of ambiguity, which, as a result would restrain the implications to solely exist in the surrounding subtext, rather than contextually. – user77422 Jul 2 '18 at 10:52
  • I don't think your weights are quite what I'd use. On a 1-10 scale, OK is around a 7 (good but not great), so-so a 5 (around average), and blah about 3 (bad, but not so remarkably bad that it's worth talking about). Also, so-so is by no means a newly-invented expression: it's in Shakespeare's "As You Like It", for instance. – jamesqf Jul 3 '18 at 16:03

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