Another so-called (or is it so called?) blog post

The phrase “so-called” has been tossed around a lot in recent months, and it’s one that deserves attention and explanation. People use it all the time, but it’s still subject to misinterpretation, both in what people mean (or think they mean) when they use it and what people understand (or think they understand) when they encounter it.

So-called has been on my radar for a long time: I first drafted a post about it in September 2013, using leftover material from a post about the terrorist group known as ISIS or ISIL. My intent then was to point out a wrong use of so-called that was fairly popular in the media at the time — it was being used incorrectly to mean self-described. But I steered away from the tangent about so-called because the post was running long, and while I’ve glanced at the draft a few times since I’ve never gotten around to making a full post about it.

With its new popularity, this seems a good time to revisit so-called.

Let’s look first at the form of the word: should so-called have a hyphen or not (so called)? You definitely don’t want to run the parts together, into “socalled.” But should the words be separated by a space or by a hyphen?

The answer isn’t as simple as we might hope. Although, if you follow best practices with the rules of compound adjectives in English, then this is pretty easy to keep straight. Generally speaking, when so-called is used as an adjective (“I blow my nose on you, so-called Arthur King, you and your silly English K-niggets”) then you hyphenate. It’s an adjective phrase, modifying the noun that immediately follows. In this example (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) so-called is the adjective modifying Arthur King. The words are hyphenated just the same as in the phrases red-blooded patriot, long-winded lecturer, or starry-eyed optimist.

On the other hand, if so called isn’t used as part of an adjective-noun formulation, you shouldn’t use the hyphen. When is it not an adjective? When it might be an adverb. Let’s slide into that now by covering the two different uses of so-called/so called: the more frequent contemporary use (as an adjective, and generally used unflatteringly) and the less frequent adverb use.

First the less-frequent older use. It shows up in constructions that look like this:

Tanqueray is a London dry gin; it is so called because of its distillation process, as well as originating in Bloomsbury, London.

In this case, so called is an adverb. Actually, so is the adverb, with called the verb. What it’s saying is “it is called by this name because.” Which is terribly wordy, and pretty much an archaic formulation. “It is so called because” is somewhat less antiquated, but still something of an unfamiliar, awkward construction to a modern audience. Here’s another example from a 1906 text, describing how Puritans and the Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth were different:

The Independents, another sect, are sometimes confounded with the Puritans. They were so called because they separated themselves altogether from the English Church and set up an independent church of their own.

The same hyphen rule — hyphen as an adjective, no hyphen as an adverb — would also apply to so named, so labelled, so described, or any similar phrase in which the adverb or adjective function can vary in specific use and context.

Now, on to the contemporary use and meaning of so-called. Most dictionaries allow for a broad interpretation of so-called, with both negative and neutral senses. For example, Merriam-Webster succinctly notes that it indicates either how something is “commonly named” or that it is “falsely or improperly named.”

I suggest, however, that this is no longer accurate: in contemporary usage the phrase almost always has a negative meaning.

If you use the phrase so-called to describe something or someone — she was my so-called friend; departing employees received a so-called bonus; the case went before a so-called judge — it does not show that person or thing in a positive light. You may feel that you are using the phrase in a neutral sense, but you should think twice. Readers or listeners who encounter this phrase will usually view it as derogatory. It questions the nature, the character, or the reliability of the object, action, or person being described. In many cases, so-called is intended, in no uncertain terms, as an insult. If that’s your intent — to deride or insult — feel free to use this phrase. But if your goal is to remain neutral or objective, or to show the subject in a positive way, or simply to present information, then you should avoid this phrase.

The American Heritage Dictionary provides so-called with an interesting usage note that’s worth sharing:

Usage Note: Quotation marks should not be used to set off descriptions that follow expressions such as so-called and self-styled, which themselves relieve the writer of responsibility for the attribution: his so-called foolproof method (not “foolproof method”).

Do you get that? The “irony quotes” — maybe we should think of them as derision quotes or mocking quotes in this case — shouldn’t be used when so-called is brought into play because so-called already serves that purpose. Using mocking quotes with so-called is redundant.

The OED also gives us a little more ammunition, adding to the definition “Called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it.” I kind of like their expansion of “falsely or improperly named” to “not properly entitled to it.” That’s certainly how it’s commonly used when it’s thrown as an almost-civilized insult.

There you have it. This began as a so-called blog post, but I hope by this point it has provided an explanation, so called, that satisfies your curiosity about how best to approach using this phrase.

= = = = = = = = = =

The seriously grammar minded might have noticed that up above I said so calledmight be an adverb.” Here are a few words to explain that hedge.

It might be an adverb, and that’s probably what most people would eventually decide it is, since there’s a verb being modified. But in a strictly technical sense, it’s not. I have it on good authority — the OED again — that so called is a class of adjective called a predicative adjective. Some of you were taught (and actually understood) what that meant in school; many of you either weren’t taught it or it didn’t sink in. Don’t feel bad about that: it’s not something most people need to know to get through life. If you’re interested in following up, I’ve combed through many explanations of what a predicate is (and what a predicate adjective is), and finding one that really hits the nail on the head where so called is concerned was difficult. This one might be about the best. The wikipedia entry for predicative expression is pretty good, too.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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