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.

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 businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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6 Responses to Another so-called (or is it so called?) blog post

  1. Max says:

    Dear thebettereditor,

    thank you for providing such a detailed answer on when to use a hyphen between so and called. With respect to the intended meaning of this expression, however, I would like to invite you to take a look at (contemporary) scientific writing, where “so-called” is frequently used in the original sense the Miriam Webster dictionary mentions:

    “Here we investigated the possibility that deficits in the elimination of synapses during synaptic
    maturation, so-called ‘pruning’, might explain some of the behavioral and circuit-level deficits
    found in autism.”

    Kind regards,


    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim says:

      Dear Max

      I proof-read, and check for correct English, scientific texts, articles and books on a weekly basis. One thing I can say with certainty is that most of the scientists and engineers whose work I see, including native English speakers, have a decidedly shaky grasp of English. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make in your comment – there’s nothing there that contradicts the original article.


      • Max says:

        Hi Jim. what I mean is that “so-called” in scientific writing (at least in my field) usually does not imply any irony; here (as in my example) “so-called” is only used to state the name of a procedure or object – entirely neutral. E.g. click yourself through a google scholar search on “proteins, so-called”
        you’ll find >3000 results and if used as an adjective, it almost always used in a neutral way.


      • I’m always surprised (and warmed!) when a post from a while back gets attention. It often causes me to revisit an issue and I sometimes uncover more information. I thought I might jump in here.

        It might not be representative of your larger (>3000 hit) sample, but I read the abstracts of the first 10 hits from the search. At a glance, 2 uses are the adverb sense, 6 are redundancies (the editor probably should have cut them or re-worded—they’re weak, wordy writing), 1 suffers from non-first language English writing (again: weak writing, little editing), and one (ironically, the last of these 10) actually does appear to use ironic “so-called”—even going so far as using what I referred to as ‘derision quotes.’ (That’s the “so-called ‘inert surfaces'” abstract.)

        I’m not sure where that leaves us, but from my end it seems like this doesn’t move the needle: 20% aren’t the animal under discussion, 10% fit the irony definition, and the other 70% (including the ESL one)…only serve to demonstrate the very well-known phenomenon that scientific writing is too wordy and needs better composition and editing.

        I’m not going to declare that you’re wrong, because those neutral uses might be out there. But this quick glance doesn’t highlight them. To me all it shows is (I’m repeating myself) that scientific paper writing can improve.

        For what it’s worth, an even more cursory glance at the second 10 hits gives a similar distribution: 1 adverb use, 1 borderline ironic use, 1 text search error (the string is “also called” not “so called”), and 7 that I rate as weak and wordy language.

        This second page helps me see where your argument is coming from, though: instead of referring to them as weak and wordy, I could say “neutral,” but in the sense that I don’t think the words add to the text (in this case, these abstracts). As this kind of neutral object, they could easily be edited out.

        Speaking of redundancies, I’m in the middle of a post about a specific kind of redundancy, the pleonasm. I’ll probably have it posted late today or tomorrow.


  2. Max says:

    Thanks for your answer. It’s interesting to hear it from a professional and I’ll take this into account for future writing 🙂
    It seems we get different results on that page, I don’t see the irony entry #10, but, looking further, I definitely see them as well. Nevertheless, you and other professionals may see the neutral use as weak, wordy, and misleading, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s out there a lot and that people need something like it to introduce their jargon words. I guess I’ll change to things like “commonly referred to as …”, “also known as …” in these instances.


    • You beat me to the punch! Late last night I was thinking, “you know, you said it was wordy and weak, but you didn’t offer a specific improvement.” You’ve hit on exactly what I would have suggested: “also known as” or “commonly known/referred to.” Other similar constructions would work just as well. In the majority of cases that I looked at yesterday, it would have been equally good (if not better) to simply use commas or parentheses. As in: “in the presence of cobalamin (Vitamin B12).”
      As I said in my previous comment, I’m not going to take a strong position and insist that the scientific writing use of so-called is wrong. Even “wrong” uses of language become correct when enough people agree to use them that way—and perhaps that ship has sailed in academic writing. I like to hope not, because those constructions are still wordy and often potentially problematic when you look at them objectively.


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