Student Stumper 3: THAT and SO

QUESTION: Is there any difference between that and so in the following sentences? The exam is not that difficult. / The exam is not so difficult.

ANSWER: In both of these sentences that and so are being used as adverbs to express degree. They are synonymous with very. I’d argue it’s possible to use both when the statement is negative and the adverb is modifying an adjective: [not that + adjective] and [not so + adjective]. Both statements above answer the same question: How hard is the exam? or Is the exam (very) difficult?

The next matter to consider is whether one structure is more frequent or more standard than the other.  The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English presents both, but indicates that the structure [not that + adjective] is reserved for spoken English[1].  Merriam-Webster acknowledges some criticism of so to intensify an adjective, but argues this usage is standard[2].  In short, both structures may be questioned by different linguistic authorities, but both are used frequently enough to be understood and accepted in everyday English.

Are there really no differences in meaning between these two structures? It’s always useful to look at the whole context when meaning is in question. The two structures are synonymous, yet consider how a larger context can favor one over the other:

  • TODD: A student who took this history course last year said that the final exam was very difficult. People who studied for days still failed! I don’t think anyone passed. What are we going to do? We’ll need to study for weeks!
  • GINA: Calm down. The exam isn’t that difficult. It can’t be. Our professor said that if we had done all the reading, we would be fine.

[That seems more appropriate when referring back to an indicated or suggested extent. Gina could also say: “No exam is that difficult.”]

 

  • TODD: A student who took this history course last year said that the final exam was very difficult. People who studied for days still failed! I don’t think anyone passed. What are we going to do? We’ll need to study for weeks!
  • GINA: Calm down. The exam isn’t so difficult that no one will pass. It can’t be. Our professor said that if we had done all the reading, we would be fine.

[In this structure, so is still being used to modify an adjective, but a result is given as well. The degree is expressed by so, and the result is introduced by that.]

 

 


[1] http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/that_3

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/so

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